On October 25, 2019, Nikolaos Kontou and Anthi-Maria Pallas were surrounded by their family and friends on the Greek island of Rhodes as they vowed to be there for each other for better, for worse, in sickness and in health.
Only hours later, Nick dove into the pool at their wedding reception and broke his neck. He sustained a cervical spinal cord injury and was diagnosed with incomplete quadriplegia.
It was from this moment on that he and Anthi realised just how much of a support system they would need to be for each other in the years to come. The Greek couple not only had to start Nick’s rehabilitation, but they also had to navigate the trials of newlywed life.
Still, they never gave up and today they’ve even launched Rolling Ever After with Nick & Anthi – Greece’s first YouTube channel showcasing the everyday life of someone with quadriplegia and their spouse.
To celebrate their courage, The Greek Herald spoke with Nick and Anthi about how the diving accident changed their life and what their future plans are.
1. Tell us a little bit about the accident on your wedding night. What happened?
NICK: It was the day I realised nothing in life is predictable and that anything can happen to anyone at any time. This day was the day of our dreams. The day that we were going onto the next chapter of our lives. It was an amazing day that we will cherish forever.
From a very young age, my wife had a dream to get married at this specific wedding reception venue. When we got engaged, she showed me the venue and I loved it too. On the same day that we decided to host our wedding reception there I told her that 15 minutes before we leave, I was going to dive into the pool.
So, our day arrived and the time had come. It was 15 minutes before we were due to leave the reception venue and I dove into the pool like I said I would but instead of coming out of the water to leave like planned, I broke my neck. As a result, I sustained a cervical spinal cord injury at the level of 5th and 6th vertebrae and was diagnosed with incomplete quadriplegia. What this means is that I can no longer use my hands, fingers, thumb, wrist flexion, triceps, and legs. No one ever imagines something like that happening to them, but more so on a day like this. Life is unpredictable and in one second everything can change.
ANTHI: To be honest it is very hard for me to bring the exact moment of the accident to my mind and to talk about it. Everything happened so fast.I remember I was sitting on the bench near the dancefloor and Nick was dancing with his friends. I knew he was going to jump, he had told me many times before, so I didn’t really think much into it. I was just waiting for him to jump, come out of the pool and then go home. Then everything is kind of blurry. I remember the moment he was out of the pool and I was touching his legs asking him if he could feel where I was touching him. The next thing I remember is telling someone to call an ambulance to go to the hospital. I was in shock.
2. As newlyweds, it must have been difficult to hear that Nick was diagnosed with quadriplegia.
N: It was very difficult and at the start we didn’t know what we were up against. We were just determined to try our best, but we didn’t know what to expect in return with regards to my progress. Every member of our family, everyone was dealing it in a different way. We honestly had no clue. It’s hard to explain it now, but back then we just didn’t know what was going on.
A: It was only when we went abroad at the rehab centre that we fully understood and we realised somehow. Because there were other people there that had similar injuries with Nick. We knew where the injury was from the beginning and the diagnosis mentioned quadriplegia in it, but we just thought that things would be different in our case and just had a lot of hope. I personally still do.
3. What were those first few months as a married couple like?
N: We spent the first year as a married couple in hospitals and rehab centres in Greece and abroad. It was hard with lots of ups and downs. But how we got through it is with being open with each other, like we had always been. Anthi is a very, very positive person that gets very excited with the smallest thing, so this certainly helped a lot with my confidence and spirit.
It was challenging to be a couple and to go through this. We were scared that it would create a distance between us and we were talking about it a lot. But instead, it brought us closer. We were achieving things together as a team and that is what kept us going. It was our love and the support of our family. There were a lot of challenges and days that we would cry non-stop.
I remember the day that an occupational therapist told me to find a new signature because I wasn’t going to be able to do my signature ever again. I cried for the whole day. Today, I can do my old signature. This is what I mean. We cherish the small wins and move forward.
A: Certainly not the way that anyone ever imagines spending the first year being married to their soulmate. However, we found ways to have a good time. We always do. The first few months were the hardest. We were more vulnerable and clueless. Even lost. I remember, I bought a diary the first month we were at the hospital and I was writing down everything that Nick was doing for the first time after his injury. From having his taste back and being tickled to being able to lift his left arm. We were happy for every single, little thing. That’s how we got through the first months.
We know each other so well, we have been together for 9 years, so we would share everything with each other, if one of us wanted to cry we would cry. The unknown is always scary, there were times that we were terrified of what’s to come. I don’t think that we will ever realise what has happened to us. We just decided to deal with it and move on. Life goes on and we decided to go on too. Together.
4. We’re also currently going through the COVID-19 pandemic and Greece was in lockdown for many months. How did both of you navigate that?
N: When the first lockdown happened, we were at the rehab centre in Switzerland. Suddenly one day the primary doctor visited me to say that it would probably be a good idea to consider going back to Greece due to the pandemic. Nobody really knew what was going on and he thought that maybe we would have trouble going back to Greece in the future.
On this day, it was also decided from hospital that visitors were not going to be allowed anymore. So my wife couldn’t visit me anymore and it was just the two of us there. For two weeks we didn’t see each other. Anthi was by herself in a studio nearby and I was at the hospital. Every night we were facetiming and then when we were going to bed, we would leave the camera on, because we wanted the last thing to see before we go to bed to be each other. It was a way that made us feel closer as we couldn’t sleep together.
A: I was by myself in the studio with just my laptop there and literally no one to talk to. Nick had a very busy schedule in the morning so I couldn’t talk to him. So, I made a spreadsheet of things I always wanted to do but never had the time to try them out. And then when I would do them, I would cross them out. I tried meditating, a 2-week yoga challenge, many online courses for various subjects and learning Spanish.
I watched the full series of ‘13 reasons why’ on Netflix in four days. I was chatting with family and friends and then one day I told Nick ‘that’s it, we are going back to Greece.’ He was surprised at first but then he agreed. The situation was very uncertain, and we were in a foreign country. So, we booked the tickets to fly back home after five days. It was an important decision for us because we were going to fly again on a regular plane just the two of us. We love to travel so that gave us a big confidence boost to see that we can do it again.
5. Quadriplegia and disabilities in general are quite taboo in Greek culture as they are not understood well. Why do you think that is the case?
N: I believe that Greek people just have more hope, and we are more loving, and we believe in god’s miracle. I think the taboos around quadriplegia and disabilities in general have more to do with the ignorance than with anything else. We don’t mind people being curious, it is part of the reason why we decided to do our YouTube channel. This is just what they have been brought up to believe. Like the mentality that disabled people are sick people and they should be in a hospital to get better or to not get worse. But generally, that’s the magic word. Ignorance.
But I think the new generations now are more aware of what is happening around them. They have more respect, and this is what we believe is the aim to focus on, educating the new generation. Taboos are slowly, slowly being broken one by one.
6. Tell us a little bit about your YouTube channel ‘Rolling Ever After with Nick and Anthi.’
A: Back when we were in Switzerland, Nick was watching a lot of YouTube videos to try and learn as much as he could about quadriplegia and to see how he can be more independent during his daily routine but also to maybe find information about a few things that we didn’t feel like asking anyone.
What he realised was that no one was sharing their journey at the early stages, which was the stage that we were, around 4-5 months after the injury and that there weren’t any YouTube channels like those in Greece. So, when we went to the rehab centre in Athens during the lockdown, Nick suggested to me to create our own. So we did. We just felt that we had a lot to talk about and we were receiving a lot of messages from our family and friends. The first video we filmed was at the cafeteria of the rehab centre and we put my phone on a carton box and added a carton of juice behind it to keep it stable.
When we first started the channel, we did it in the hope that we will give to someone what he hoped we would find ourselves at the time. But we also did it for us. We felt the need to express what we were going through – it was like a virtual diary. In the first few videos, we were talking about our journey so far and those moments in front of the camera were the first times we were actually talking about it with each other in such detail. Now we have over half a million views across our channel. It’s unreal!
What we are now hoping to achieve is to spread awareness about accessibility, quadriplegia, and us as a couple. To give hope and positivity to anyone who needs it. When at times we are not feeling our best, we would watch one of our videos and feel better. We feel so proud!
7. It is known as the only YouTube channel in Greece featuring a wheelchair user and their spouse. Do you think you’re breaking the stigma around disabilities through the channel?
N: Definitely and we are very proud about that! From the very beginning, when we decided to launch the channel, we wanted to keep the ‘couple’ element alive. It was very important to us because we were going through it, but also to show to other people that we are still a couple, that we have fun, explore new things, go on trips, go out with friends, like any other couple. But most importantly that we are STILL a couple. And this is very important. People with disabilities go out, they have fun, they make friends, they travel, they drive, they form relationships. Just like everyone else. And this is what our channel is about really. The life of a loving couple.
8. What has been the response to your videos from viewers?
A: The response from the viewers and followers has been unreal. We are receiving so much love every day through the comments people leave on our YouTube videos and the messages they send us on Instagram and Facebook. We would like to say a huge thank you to every single one of them for their support.
People send us messages to say that they love our story and that they enjoy our content or, in some cases, they send us suggestions for videos or even for things that Nick should try to make his everyday life easier. Overall, very positive messages and we are so thankful for that.
People don’t realise how much their messages have helped us during our toughest times and how much they still do. But the best messages are from people who are going through something similar to us and say they have been helped by our videos and are thanking us for uploading them. Those messages are just priceless.
9. What are your future plans together?
N: We would love to grow our YouTube channel even more and help more people and spread awareness. We love travelling and never had our honeymoon so we would like to hopefully go on our honeymoon, travel the world together and show the accessibility levels in the places that we will visit.
My dream for the future is to go to the Paralympics in Paris in 2024. I got the silver medal at the swimming championship for the whole country of Greece, so the future is looking bright. Anthi will of course be my cheerleader, so we are doing this together as well. And of course, we would like to grow our family one day. But we still have time for that.