ACU graduate Jade McAlear was in a coma following a horrific car accident when her distraught parents Karen and Zac received her degree on her behalf last year.

But now the inspiring 24-year-old has accepted her Bachelor of Occupational Therapy award herself in a special graduation ceremony organised by ACU’s School of Allied Health and the Jim-baa-yer Indigenous Higher Education Unit.

Tears of triumph and joy were shed by family, friends and ACU staff as Jade received her degree in a moving ceremony in the amphitheatre of the university’s new St Teresa of Kolkata Building.

Supported by her doting sisters Shai and Tyla, Jade walked across the stage to accept her award from ACU Faculty of Health Sciences Deputy Dean Professor Justin Kemp.

Jade said she felt ‘lucky’ to be able to graduate in person.

‘I feel really honoured that ACU put on a graduation for just me,’ she said. ‘It’s awesome.’

Jade’s proud mum Karen, an ACU-trained psychologist, said it was a different experience to last year’s ceremony.

‘That was just so difficult. We just cried the whole way through—but it was amazingly respectful,’ she said. ‘This ceremony is just so special.’

ACU, even when I was there as a student, are just so supportive. It’s an incredible institution.

Karen, whose youngest daughter Tyla also recently graduated from ACU with a paramedicine degree, said it had been a long journey from Jade’s accident in April last year to her graduation.

Jade, who was working as an occupational therapist at the time, suffered an acquired brain injury and multiple fractures after a car accident when she was just 1 kilometre from home after returning from visiting a client.

She was in a coma for four months.

‘We’ve only just been able to come up for air,’ Karen said.

‘We’ve gone from nothing, just nothing. We are so lucky. It could have been so much worse.’

With the support of medical and allied health experts, Karen is confident Jade, who has had several surgeries on her hands and feet, and has 22 therapy sessions per week, including occupational therapy, physiotherapy, swimming and exercise therapy, will walk again.

Jade is also keen to restore strength to her hands so she can return to her passion for portraiture.

‘I really want to get back to my artwork,’ she said. ‘I really want my hands working again.’

And, unable to work as an occupational therapist, Jade and her family are also looking at ways she can share her experience and raise awareness about acquired brain injuries with allied health students and the wider community.

Jade’s commitment to share her journey is being backed by ACU speech pathologist Danielle Czapnik, who, in a twist of fate, went from being one of her former lecturers to being on her Epworth Hospital medical treatment team.

‘It’s vital to have an understanding of a person’s lived experience and have empathy and compassion, along with using evidence-based practice,’ Danielle said.

‘It’s a very powerful thing to sit and listen and understand in order to be an outstanding therapist.’

Danielle paid tribute to Jade’s resilience and positive nature.

‘I feel lucky and incredibly blessed to be on this pathway with Jade,’ she said.

She is incredibly resilient. She’s very inspiring, and overwhelmingly positive—the accident doesn’t define her.

Jim-baa-yer coordinator Linc Yow Yeh said the ceremony, which featured an academic procession that included School of Allied Health academics Associate Professor Loretta Sheppard, Dr Liana Cahill, Tammy Boatman, Alexandra Logan, Susan Darzins and campus pastoral associate Jake Santitto, celebrated the resilience and strength of the McAlear family.

‘We feel very blessed that she [Jade] can be here today,’ he said.

Jim-baa-yer student success officer Madelaine Sealey said Jade’s graduation ceremony was designed to honour her story and her cultural connections as a First Nations woman.

‘We feel so honoured and privileged to be able to celebrate Jade’s graduation with her and her family and friends. Our university community has thrown their weight behind this special day for Jade and her family,’ she said.

‘Jade’s family have been so incredibly resilient throughout this whole time, and there is so much love from their family for Jade and for each other. It is such a blessing that Jade is alive and responding well to her recovery.

‘However, based on conversations with Jade’s family these last few months, it is evident there is still a lot for the family to manage moving forward in terms of Jade’s recovery and ongoing care.’