The Unbreakable Zack Collie

He broke his neck, but it didn’t break him. Counseling graduate student Zack Collie hopes to help other survivors of traumatic events find a path forward.

When I broke my neck at age 15, I went from being an independent person to completely relying on others for almost everything. I couldn’t scratch an itch on my face, feed or dress myself.

Since then, I have gained back a lot of my independence. I learned how to feed myself again. I moved into an apartment and live on my own with a caregiver. A few years ago, I learned how to drive with hand controls and got my license. I can drive my van completely on my own. Learning to drive has given me so much of my independence back.

For years after my injury, I struggled trying to figure out what career I could have as a quadriplegic. A class at Cal State Fullerton changed my life.

Each week in “Character and Conflict,” we talked about a new topic such as death and loss, love and sex, gender, and finding meaning in life. We were told at the beginning that the class would change us, but we would have to be vulnerable to get the most out of it and we would have to work on ourselves.

I experienced so much personal growth through that class. Afterward, I knew in my heart that the way I could give back and help others would be through counseling. There is no doubt in my mind this is what I am meant to do.

I am currently in the last year of my master’s program studying counseling. After graduation, I plan to apply for a position as an associate therapist to complete the 3,000 hours required to become a licensed counselor. Seeing people come together and support me after I broke my neck, even complete strangers, made me realize that I want to do that for others.

I did not receive counseling after my injury. When I was in rehab, I remember wishing I had someone to talk to besides my doctor, nurses or parents, but the rehab center didn’t offer counseling services. I started seeing a therapist on my own a few years ago and it has been incredibly helpful to have someone listen to what’s on my mind and what I’m going through.

“My purpose in life is to motivate people to never give up.”

I think counseling is important for survivors of trauma or spinal cord injuries because it’s healthy to talk about the struggles we are going through. The worst thing we can do as human beings is to bottle emotions inside of us and bury them deep down.

Since I have a disability, I see myself working with survivors of traumatic events, people with disabilities or individuals in correctional systems. I want to help normalize mental health and let people know it’s OK to talk about our feelings.

Being paralyzed for 12 years, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned:

I learned the importance of patience. I was not a patient person before my injury.

I learned the value of family and friendships.

I became closer to my faith.

I learned the importance of suffering. Suffering is not for nothing: It makes us stronger.

I learned that I don’t want people to feel sorry for me.

I learned to choose happiness.

I learned that my purpose in life is to motivate people to never give up.

To someone who has gone through a traumatic injury or event: Life is not over. You can still live a happy and fulfilling life. I know it might not feel like it in the beginning. I never thought I would be where I am today after breaking my neck, but here I am. Keep moving forward, even if it is one step at a time. I was given a second chance at life, and I am going to make the absolute best out of it.

Zack Collie, 27, broke his C4 vertebrae diving into a wave at Newport Beach in 2010, paralyzing all four of his limbs. Facing an uncertain future as a quadriplegic, he decided to attend college and completed his bachelor’s degree in human services at Cal State Fullerton in 2018. This winter, Collie will graduate with a master’s degree in counseling. His YouTube channel, “Quadlife With Zack,” has 175,000 subscribers and aims to spread awareness about living with spinal cord injuries. The most-watched video, “Quadriplegic Morning Routine and Workout,” has 15 million views.

The CSUF Podcast on Spotify: Learn about Disability Support Services with Jennifer Wheeler, disability management specialist.

Support the College of Health and Human Development