How this survivor of the Manchester concert bombing is managing her trauma

Yasmine Lee was at the Ariana Grande show last May when a bomb went off. It took a unique nature program to help overcome her fear of trauma, Nahlah Ayed writes.

Yasmine Lee took part in adventure program started by woman who experienced a debilitating physical trauma

Yasmine Lee is making progress a year after surviving the Manchester bombing, which left her with shrapnel wounds in her leg. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

It is a life-altering thing for any child to live through a bomb explosion. It's an even bigger thing when she can say she's no longer fearful of the trauma she still suffers as a result.

That Yasmine Lee speaks, smiles and carries herself like any 13-year old is a testament to her resilience. That she is making remarkable progress a year after surviving the Manchester bombing and her shrapnel wounds is the work of many.

It takes a village to help a raise a child above severe trauma.

Yasmine was at the Ariana Grande concert a year ago with a friend and her friend's mother. They were in the foyer of the arena when the attacker blew up his bomb. Yasmine was knocked over by the force of the blast, and shrapnel tore through her leg. Her friend's mother dragged her to her feet to get out of the venue.

Yasmine had survived the U.K's worst terrorist attack in more than a decade.

Since then, there have been good and bad days for Yasmine. She has had skin grafts and, sometimes, flashbacks. But there have also been triumphs in the unlikeliest places.

"I'm not great, but I'm not really bad. Kind of in the middle," she said. "I feel, like, comfortable… This is what happened, and now I'm not afraid of it — like, I'm not afraid of my trauma."

Kelda Wood is the founder of Climbing Out, a nature program intended to help victims of trauma recover their confidence. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Yasmine's family, of course, has been key, as have the doctors, teachers, therapists and friends — when she finally reconnected with them. The police and the support groups have also been crucial.

Music and the outdoors have played significant roles in Yasmine's ongoing recovery. A major turning point was made possible with the help of Kelda Wood, founder of the charity Climbing Out. 

Wood knows all about trauma. She nearly lost a leg after being accidentally crushed by a one-tonne bale of hay. With her athletic dreams dashed, Wood lost her confidence and identity — until she decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, despite having a fused ankle.

"By the time I got back home, I'd come up with the idea of Climbing Out," Wood said. "I just wanted to give other people the opportunity to kind of rediscover themselves and just realize that injury, like trauma, can be life-changing. But it doesn't have to be life-limiting."

'A weight had been lifted'

This is where the village idea really comes to life. 

The Climbing Out program combines group activities and outdoor adventure to help survivors get past their injuries and trauma. Between the kayaking, rock climbing, talking and therapy dogs, trained instructors try to shift the youth's thinking from past to future — and from victim to survivor. 

There was a lot of anxiety among the group of 13 Manchester survivors — including Lee — to join a week-long program put together for them earlier this spring in northern England.

"One young young girl turned up, had a panic attack and shut herself in the toilet, and couldn't look anyone in the eye," said Wood. "I think more than anything, it was that it was almost that feeling of them being stuck."

Survivors of the Manchester attack - including Yasmine Lee, fourth from right in the back row - celebrate reaching the top of Pavey Ark in northern England earlier this spring. (Climbing Out)

The Climbing Out team had one week to get them unstuck. Wood said that by the Thursday, the anxiety and nightmares had subsided.

The watershed moment came when they climbed above the pain to reach the top of Pavey Ark, a mountain range 700 metres above sea level.

"The lid just came off and just everything came out. But the beauty was that we were then there to be the support and help and process it and it was like they left it up on the mountain," said Wood.

Yasmine confirmed that it was a life-altering moment.

"It felt so good. Like afterwards, it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, and I just felt real lighter and more motivated to do everyday stuff." 

'I feel more confident'

Such progress is precious. To keep up the momentum, Wood started a closed social media group where every survivor was asked to share a short-term goal before they left the retreat.

Yasmine, who is from nearby Stockport, hoped to once again visit Manchester — the city that knew the most painful moment of her past, a city she had been avoiding.

She accomplished that goal inside a week.

Part of Lee's recovery included work with therapy dogs. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"It's been like, so nice, and I'd put it off for so long, and now I'm kind of like, 'Yeah, I can go there every so often,' and I feel more confident going in," she said.

For Wood, every success at Climbing Out is personal. It is why she's now in training to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo — 4,800 kilometres — in the name of survivors. If she makes it, Wood would be the first para-athlete to make the crossing by boat. 

Once she leaves in December, Wood will be dedicating each lonely day on the water to a young survivor of trauma — including Yasmine. As part of a race against others taking the challenge, Wood's aim is to also raise awareness about the support groups like hers that help youth recover from physical injury and trauma.

Her hope is to "be able to reach those young people that are still stuck and still struggling to move forwards," she said. 

The training hasn't been easy.

"I've got to overcome these doubts and do it anyway," Wood said. "Otherwise, why would [the youth] ever believe anything I say again, you know? So yeah, I've got to practice what I preach now."

'I've come a long way'

Lee, too, is testing the limits. Little by little, she is reclaiming the parts wrested from her on that terrible night in May 2017.

She is taking an interest in school and her friends again, as well as her cheerleading. She said her biggest milestone is knowing when to ask for help.

It took a while, but a year on, Lee is also listening again to the music of Ariana Grande. And she's singing in the Manchester Survivors Choir. All of the members experienced the bombing, and on Tuesday, they sang to mark one year down.

"It's so nice," Yasmine said. It's like "you're meant to be together."

The one-year mark is significant, she added.

"I've come a long way in that year and I think it's it's really important to remember that."

With files from Stephanie Jenzer

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.