September 03, 2018 11:32 AM

Jillian Harpin was 23 years old and having the best time of her life.

In the spring of 2016, the recent college graduate from Waltham, Massachusetts, was working as a financial analyst, taking weekend ski trips with her friends and never missing a happy hour.

“I was just having a great time,” Harpin shares in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. “I had just gotten this book about the 50 best day hikes in Connecticut and I decided I was going to tick them all off that summer.”

But Harpin, now 25, would only end up going on four hikes.

On April 18, she and three of her closest friends, feeling “burnt out from working so hard,” left for a week-long vacation in Riviera Maya, Mexico.

Five days into the trip, they came back from spending time at the beach. As the group got ready for dinner, Harpin walked out onto the balcony to make a quick call home.

Sitting on the balcony’s railing, “I lifted my foot up and lost my balance,” she recalls.

She then plummeted three stories to the grass below, fracturing three vertebrae in her back, her sternum and several ribs. Harpin was unconscious as she was airlifted to a hospital in Miami the next day and woke up in a daze of pain medication to discover she was paralyzed from the waist down.

Jillian Harpin
Courtesy Jillian Harpin

“When I was getting prepped to go into surgery, my dad was standing right in front of me, crying and crying,” Harpin recalls. “So I looked at him and I said, ‘Dad, it’s going to be okay. I’m still Jillian. I’m still here. I’ve got my head, I’ve got my hands. It’ll be ok.'”

Her Road to Recovery

After five days in the intensive care unit, Harpin was transferred to the spinal unit of the hospital, where she began months of grueling physical therapy — learning everything from how to sit up in her wheelchair by herself to getting dressed and even cooking.

“I never lost hope and I was always just saying, ‘Okay, I can get through this. I can learn how to use a wheelchair. It won’t take that long,'” she recalls. “I had to learn now to dwell on what could have been. I had to stay motivated and not feel sorry for myself.”

Reclaiming her life meant gaining back the confidence she had before the accident. A week before heading from Miami to Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford for further rehab — and where she’d be closer to home — Harpin asked her sister, Katie, to come to the hospital with her favorite dress and hair curlers.

Jillian Harpin before the accident

“I did my hair for the first time in two months,” she remembers, “and then we went outside … and [took] hundreds of pictures.”

Somehow, seeing herself in those photos gave Harpin the emotional boost she needed. “I was like, ‘Okay, I’m still me. I’m just sitting down,'” she says. “I remember I posted one of them on Instagram, and it made me feel great.”

For much more on Jillian Harpin’s story, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE.

With her father Bill, 59, mother Dawn, 54, and Katie, 23, she pushed forward.

“They held my hand throughout it all,” says Harpin. “One of them would stay and sleep in the room with me on a chair, and they’d switch off every other night,” she says.

Close friends from college rallied to her side as well.

“I was trying my best to stay strong for them so that they didn’t feel bad,” she says. “I feel like that gave me a lot of strength. I’m where I am today because of the support system that was there right from the beginning.”

One Day at a Time

Two years after the accident, there is nothing that slows Harpin down, and she reveals that she’s actually happier now than she was before the fall.

Getting around with a state-of-the-art wheelchair and a hand-controlled car, she continues rigorous physical therapy and weekly sessions with an Exoskeleton — a strapped-on, battery-powered apparatus that literally lifts and bends her legs so she can walk upright to maintain her strength.

In April she participated in a 5K race—  and in June, with the help of a specially designed off-road wheelchair, she took second place in the Gaylord Gauntlet, a strenuous trail-and-obstacle event in Wallingford, Connecticut.

“It’s crazy that there are so many active things on my bucket list, because I never really considered myself a risk-taker before,” she says. “I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m going to live the life I’m lucky enough to have.”

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