Jessica Tawil, a 22-year-old from New Jersey, has accrued nearly 1 million TikTok followers since she posted her first video in November of last year. Her content focuses on an all-encompassing aspect of her daily life — the fact that she's paralyzed from the waist down.
"Not many people know too much about paraplegics and their capabilities, so I wanted to be that light to inform, educate, and even entertain people," Jessica told BuzzFeed. "I want people to know what it's like to be paralyzed ... so that they can be a little bit more appreciative of what they have and remain humble."
In Jessica's most recent video, she showed viewers an exercise you can do with your hand that demonstrates how it feels to not be able to move your finger. She found the exercise a few years ago while looking through disability-related posts. "I remember feeling so blown away because my legs felt the exact same way as my finger did," she said.
Many people commented on how frustrated and anxious the demonstration made them feel.
Jessica has had to face those emotions — and more — every day for six years. The car accident that led to her paralysis occurred on Nov. 15, 2014.
She had gone over to a friend's house in high school, but wasn't told that men she had never met before would be there too. They brought drugs and alcohol, and Jessica felt uncomfortable. "When I eventually asked them to take me home, they took me to an abandoned road instead. When we got to this road, the driver stopped the car and put his foot on the gas and brake at the same time, doing a burnout with his wheels. He lost control of the car and crashed into a tree," she said.
"It was at this moment that I got whiplash, split my head open to the point where my skull was exposed, and sustained a spinal cord injury — leaving me paralyzed the moment we crashed," she said. "Paramedics said that I lost the equivalence of a 'Coca-Cola bottle of blood' out of my head, and didn't think I'd make it if they drove me to the hospital. So they drove me to a nearby soccer field where a helicopter airlifted me to the ICU. From there on, I went through seven months of rehab and remained permanently paralyzed and wheelchair bound."
"I cannot feel or move my legs (if I hurt myself, I'd have no idea), I cannot drive a car in a conventional fashion, I cannot feel sexual intercourse, making friends is extremely difficult (as many people see the chair before they see me, which makes me unapproachable)."
"Above all, I go through episodes of autonomic dysreflexia every single day of my life, which is where my body attacks me because it is in complete confusion. For example, if I do not use the bathroom on time, my blood pressure will skyrocket, I will start sweating profusely, have shortness of breath, and turn extremely red. In short, if I go long hours without using the bathroom, I could potentially die."
Jessica's accident has led to her being more reclusive and less trusting of others. But she can still see some light in the darkness. "On the positive side, I have become a lot more spiritual and grateful to have been given another chance at life," she said. "My accident has emphasized the fact that we are not promised tomorrow, and that we should always be grateful for the simplest things in life."
Jessica hopes her TikToks can be "that voice in someone's head — particularly a teenager at a party or a college student that is about to get into a car with people they barely know," she said. "I want them to think of my story and make better decisions, as they could easily be put in the same position as I am."
"I also want to show people how I live my life in the present day — what is life like as a wheelchair user? — and devote my channel to being a blog where people can get to know me on a lot more of a personal level," she said. "A lot of people are discriminatory toward paraplegics/wheelchair users, and something like this would give them a small taste of what it's like."