The Fall and Rise of Tara Moore
After a horrific skydiving accident, doctors told Tara Moore she’d probably never walk again. Hard work and determination helped her heal her body and mind – and prove them wrong.
(Photo: Erich Saide)
Tara Moore executes moves at a Bikram yoga class in Langford, B.C., with the grace and flexibility of an advanced-yoga practitioner.
Challenging poses that demand balance, strength and endurance – like the killer “standing head to knee” pose – look almost easy for the 31-year-old leading seaman in the Canadian Navy, as if her body was made for such contortions.
But she can point out scars that tell a different story. While hardly noticeable to the unknowing eye, they’re visible: above her right ankle and on her left thigh, where titanium rods and plates pieced back together broken bones in both legs; where pins fused her shattered pelvis; around her left arm at the elbow, where a metal hinge and delicate microsurgery reattached her severed arm; and just above her left eye, where a large flap of her scalp was reattached.
Only two years ago, Tara was so badly injured after a parachuting accident that doctors told her she might never walk again. Her partner, Jason Tucker, who stayed by her side through her accident and recovery, says those doctors didn’t know Tara Moore.
Born and raised in Nova Scotia, Tara was the older of two girls born to a navy dad and stay-at-home mom. (Her mother died of cancer when Tara was in her mid-20s.) After graduating from high school, Tara tried a nursing program, but left after six months to go surfing in Mexico and to seek out a new vocation. She found it in the Canadian Navy, which she joined in 2000 at age 22, following in the footsteps of her father, Cal, a former naval communicator, and her sister, Kenzie, an army medic stationed in the navy.
During her time in the navy, Tara found two new loves: Jason and skydiving. She met Jason, a master seaman from St. John’s, N.L., in May 2004, when they were temporarily assigned to the same ship. Afterwards, they saw each other whenever possible and phoned or emailed when apart. Their relationship grew slowly and steadily, from companionable fun into a deep and abiding commitment.
For Tara, however, skydiving was love at first jump. The first time she pushed herself out of an airplane, at 3,500 feet, she felt no fear – just joy and exhilaration. She especially liked the feel of the air on her body – cradling her – and the astonishing 360-degree views.
Over three years, whenever she had time off from the navy, Tara made 300 jumps. She decided she wanted to become a SkyHawk, one of about 16 people on the Canadian Forces’ elite skydiving-demonstration team. Earning a spot was difficult – particularly for a woman – due to the physical-fitness requirements. Attending a SkyHawks tryout at the Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Trenton, in Ontario, in 2006, Tara, though supremely fit, had to withdraw: She didn’t have the upper-body strength to do the required chin-ups and push-ups.
But Tara was undeterred. She would work on her upper-body strength and then try again. That year, she moved from Halifax to Victoria, where she was stationed at CFB Esquimalt. On the West Coast, she discovered Bikram Yoga Langford, which offered an arduous 90-minute workout performed in a room heated to 41°C. Some find “hot yoga” a form of torture, but Tara became addicted to the workouts – they were helping her build strength, mental toughness and flexibility.
In June 2006, when Tara was deployed to Hawaii on HMCS Algonquin for naval exercises, she was in the best shape of her life.
On June 28, she had a day off in Honolulu, so she rented a car and headed for the local “drop zone” – slang for a skydiving centre. She called Jason, who was on a six-month NATO patrol on HMCS Athabaskan, to tell him she was going for a jump. “Have a good time and tell me about it when you get back,” he said.
It was late afternoon and a brisk wind had come up. Tara was one of four jumpers, all veterans.
When she threw herself out of the plane, Tara was enthralled by the beauty of the deep-green Hawaiian Islands and the surrounding blue ocean. She counted off 45 seconds of free fall, then pulled the cord to release her parachute. The wind was carrying the canopy off course, so she knew she would land downwind from the drop zone. She could see a major freeway, some power lines and a field. She aimed for the field.
A sudden gust of wind collapsed the canopy, carrying her into the high-tension power lines. She missed the wires, but her chute hit a transformer, which exploded with a loud bang and a flash of fire. Still carrying tremendous speed, Tara was hurled down onto the highway.
Drivers hit their brakes, narrowly missing Tara as she slammed into the asphalt, bounced and landed again. She felt her bones shatter on impact – little ones in her hands and feet, and one bone in each leg, which snapped in two, the jagged edges ripping through the fabric of her jumpsuit. She knew something was wrong with her left arm, but not that it had been sheared off at the elbow and was dangling from a thin strip of flesh. She worried she might be blind in one eye because her vision was obscured by blood and a large flap of skin that had peeled from her forehead.
People came running from their cars, yelling and dialling 9-1-1 on their cellphones. Tara wanted to crawl and hide, mortified that she was causing such a commotion. She wondered how she would call Jason – he would worry if she didn’t call.
(Photo: Erich Saide)
Off the coast of Portugal, Jason was indeed worried. He had tried to call Tara a number of times, sure she’d be finished her jump, but she didn’t answer her phone. He had gone off his watch to catch some sleep, thinking she would surely contact him when he went back on duty.
Now, five hours later and back on shift, he signed on to his email. There was nothing from Tara, but a message from her sister, Kenzie, said, “Call right away,” and gave two Nova Scotia phone numbers. He dialled the first one, getting Kenzie at the family’s Halifax home. “Call us on the other number,” Kenzie said, trying to keep the phone free for an update from The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu, where Tara had been medivaced.
His anxiety climbing, Jason called the other number and got Tara’s father. “Is she okay?” was all he wanted to know. “She’s in surgery,” Cal said. “We’re waiting to hear.”
Jason eventually got through to PO 1st Class Robert Gibson, the senior medical clinician on HMCS Algonquin and Tara’s close friend. Gibson was the first Canadian medical official to see her in the emergency ward. She was strapped to a spinal board with open fractures protruding and a massive laceration on her head where her helmet and sunglasses had sliced and separated a section of her scalp. Her injuries were so extensive that Gibson had to compose himself. Tara apologized, saying, “I’m really sorry for creating such a fuss.”
“Shh – enough of that,” he said as she was wheeled into surgery.
Gibson told Jason that Tara could lose her left arm and might need a hip replacement. Plastic surgeons had repaired the major laceration to her forehead. “Be prepared when you see her,” he said.
“I don’t care about that,” Jason said. “I am just happy she is alive.”
He knew he had to go to Tara’s side, and the ship’s officers agreed and granted him leave: He could disembark when the ship docked in the Azores the next day. It took three days for Jason to get to Honolulu.
When he was finally standing outside Tara’s hospital door, he paused: He wasn’t sure how he would react to seeing her so seriously injured. Steadying himself, he opened the door and walked in.
Tara was lying in the hospital bed with stitches on her forehead, two black eyes, her legs in casts, her left arm in a large bandage. Her father was beside the bed. Although she was heavily sedated with painkillers, she looked up as Jason came through the door and gave him a big smile.
Seeing her relieved all of Jason’s anxiety. Yes, he thought, she was badly hurt, but everything is going to be okay. They would go through it together.
For the next three months, he hardly left her side.
(Photo: Erich Saide)
Tara spent six weeks in the Honolulu hospital, at first in so much pain that when Jason or her father changed the position of her bed, she winced.
But little victories came day by day, like being able to sit up in bed, or being transferred on a board from the bed to a wheelchair, building stamina so she could endure first going across her room in the wheelchair, then down the hall and then outside the hospital for forays across the parking lot, each outing lasting a little longer.
Three weeks after the accident, she stood up for the first time. A nurse took a picture of Tara leaning on Jason, both of them beaming at this milestone. Soon she was doing daily physiotherapy, part of it in a pool where she could begin to walk, the water supporting her body weight until her legs fully healed.
One of the biggest concerns, since Tara is left-handed, was whether the nerves of her severed left arm would reconnect after the delicate microsurgical reattachment. The test to see if the arm’s severed nerves were reconnecting was simply for Tara to cross and uncross her fingers. She would sit in her hospital bed for hours, lips pursed in concentration, attempting to cross her fingers. One day, Jason came into the room and Tara triumphantly raised her arms: The fingers of both hands were crossed.
By mid-August 2006, Tara had been moved to Halifax, where she went to the Cox Rehabilitation Centre daily. Jason went back to work for the navy. Tara had not yet begun to walk unaided, and that was her next goal. In early October Jason was sent on a three-week deployment. “When you come back, I will be walking on my own,” Tara promised. Her pronouncement was weeks ahead of doctors’ predictions.
When Jason returned, Tara was there to meet his ship, sitting in the driver’s seat of the car. She drove him to a local Tim Hortons. When they parked, without saying a word, Tara got out and walked around the car without help.
That was the watershed. Soon, she was taking longer and longer walks, even completing an 18-kilometre hike with Jason and her family in mid-November. By December, the couple packed up to transfer back to Victoria, where both were now stationed.
Jason helping Tara at the Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu.
(Photo: Erich Saide)
In January 2007 Tara once again entered Bikram Yoga Langford. Owner Ken Mayes, who remembered the striking athletic woman who was from the military, was astonished to see her in such a weakened state. She was unable to even lie flat on the floor in the resting posture called “savasana.”
Tara, however, attended yoga classes for 60 consecutive days, enduring the 90-minute sessions in the hot room. At first, she could not even balance on one leg – a skill that is repeatedly required in yoga. But by doing the demanding moves and deep stretches in the moist, extreme heat, she regained strength and function.
Six weeks into the yoga, Tara’s emotions suddenly overwhelmed her. She could hardly look at herself in the studio’s mirrors. All she could see were her scars and how her young, athletic body had been altered and deformed.
Such delayed emotional reactions from traumatic injury are common. “It is almost as if the body, with so much healing to do, can only focus on one thing at a time,” says Gibson.
Yoga helped Tara get through the delayed grief and emotional impact of the accident. It required her to practise “mental yoga,” forcing her to calm her mind, focus her breathing and accept the new person she had become. Doing so was almost as difficult as all the physical challenges she had faced in her recovery, but she has emerged stronger for it. “The physical benefits of yoga have been great, but what it has done to my mind is probably the most helpful of all,” says Tara, who is now comfortable and happy with her body – and the scars that show how far she has come.
Tara and Jason have built a home together in Langford and are hoping to start a family someday soon. In the meantime, as her injuries make her ineligible to be deployed, Tara is doing computer work with the navy. In January, she will begin studies at Royal Roads University in human resources.
While it is not clear what lies ahead, two things are certain. She and Jason know whatever happens as their lives unfold, they will go through it together. And Tara will do yoga for the rest of her life.
Two years after the fall: Jason and Tara in their backyard with their dog, Harry.
(Photo: Erich Saide)