Reflecting on My Two Decades With a Spinal Cord Injury
Beep… beep… beep. The rapid and erratic rhythm of my heartbeat was palpable as it echoed from the monitor above my head. I lay motionless on the stretcher, my body still damp and glistening with the chlorine-infused water. The bright fluorescent lights of the trauma room blinded my bloodshot and tear-stricken eyes. I glanced to my right and noticed the tattered remains of my bathing suit lying on the floor. My beloved “Tsunamis” team emblem was virtually unrecognizable after the suit had been hastily sheared from my broken body. A bevy of doctors and nurses frantically scurried around me, poking and prodding me with needles and tubes. I tried to move, but nothing. I tried again… nothing. I felt trapped. My confused and frightened innocent 12-year-old mind swirled with emotions. Extreme shock enveloped my body and I slowly faded into unconsciousness.
You know how they say life can change in an instant? How a singular, fleeting, blink of-an-eye moment can completely and abruptly alter the course of your life and forever change your existence as it was and what it was destined to be? Well… 2:30 p.m. on July 15, 1997 was my instant…
A typical summer afternoon at a friend’s house was shattered when I dove into her backyard pool and sustained a C5 incomplete spinal cord injury, leaving me paralyzed from the waist down. Hours earlier I was a typical Spice Girl obsessed, pubescent 12-year-old girl who had just returned home from swim practice. My only concern was whose house I was sleeping over at next and which one of my friends had scored the new highly coveted Hanson CD. That carefree, childlike mentality was suddenly stolen away from me in a split second by a simple playful dive. A dive I had done thousands of times. A dive I could probably do in my sleep. I now was faced with a daunting, life-changing new reality and it was far beyond my sheltered 12 years.
It’s hard to believe two decades have come and gone. I can still smell the fragrant aroma of hot dogs and hamburgers searing on the grill. I can still feel the thick veil of muggy air on my skin. And I can still hear the loud roar of lawnmowers echoing throughout the neighborhood. To say the past 20 years have been a roller coaster is an understatement. The ebbs and flows have been as ever changing as the waves of the ocean. But I have learned to ride those waves and ride them well (I’ve earned my pro-surfer certificate…hypothetically). I guess you can say I have grown up with this injury or maybe this injury has grown up with me. And while I would give anything to feel the ground move beneath my feet again, I would never change the person I have become, the lessons I have learned, the strength I have gained and the confidence I have developed.
I’m grateful for the four wheels that have sat beneath me for the past two decades. Physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually these tattered, worn-down tires have taken me further than my two walking legs ever did. Trips to Europe, speaking engagements to middle schools, sailing and kayak adventures off the coast of Nantucket, and most importantly these wheels have taken me on a journey from a confused, frightened pre-teen young girl and helped me grow into a confident, thriving 32-year-young woman. Recently, it hit me that I have lived more of my life wheeling on two wheels than I did walking on two feet. This is something I never really thought about, and surprisingly, the thought of it didn’t sadden me, because instead of dwelling, I have been too busy just living. That is something I am proud of and celebrate. And that’s the best advice I can give — just live, no matter what your circumstances are. Realize and acknowledge your struggle, but just focus on living your best life in spite of it.
These past two decades of living life on wheels have taught me that nothing is unattainable. I know it sounds cliché and scripted, but I believe if you want something bad enough, you will achieve it (cue Hallmark commercial). I know this firsthand and I am living proof. There is no such thing as failure, as long as you keep trying. And that has become my life motto or mantra if you will. Whenever I face frustration and doubt (and it does still happen 20 years later… quite often) I always recite to myself “Just try…what can it hurt to just try.”
Yes, there are always ups and downs and failures, but I feel fortunate because my years in a wheelchair have given me a unique perspective on life which most people will never experience. A perspective I feel oddly fortunate to have had. It has allowed me to see the beauty in the simple little things in life. I like to call it my “lens of gratitude.” When you drastically lose something so important, when it is abruptly, unapologetically stolen away from you, you certainly grieve. But then you can begin to notice and appreciate every small, beautiful, amazing detail of life that often goes unseen. You can feel unbelievably blessed to be able to appreciate things that are so sadly and so often overlooked. You never take anything you still have for granted, and life’s simplest things become more magnified, meaningful and treasured. It’s almost as if you won the lottery, but with your life experience that you never acknowledged.
So here’s to 20 years of not only surviving but also thriving. I am so much more than the wheels that sit beneath me. I am a spunky 32-year-old who loves a good pun (probably a little too much), is fluent in sarcasm and cheesy puns, a true wanderluster always searching for the next best place to travel and explore, a serious game night competitor, a self-proclaimed wine connoisseur who very much appreciates a good Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir, an obsessed dog lover, a serious beach enthusiast who could spend all day with the sand between my toes and the salt water in my hair, a reality TV junkie, a karaoke professional, a writer, a daughter, a friend, and most importantly a lover of life.
Getty image by Obencem.