Building the Future

November 27, 2009
Young Woman Turns Spinal Cord Injury into an Inspirational Career

There was broken glass and debris everywhere, and I could hear sirens in the distance. Just moments before I was sleeping in the car as we drove home from a family vacation in Florida. I was jolted awake as the car flipped over, and I could feel myself being thrown around as if I were in a washing machine. I was strangely calm, lying half in and half out of the backseat - until the paramedic checked me for injuries and I couldn't feel anything. I began to panic. When I asked if I was paralyzed, he wouldn't answer.

When I was stable, I was transferred from a hospital in Florida to the Kennedy Krieger Institute. I felt so lucky this world-renowned hospital was right in my hometown, Baltimore. When I got there, I couldn't speak, breathe, eat, or drink. People had to read my lips whenever I needed something. I hadn't sat up in a month and a half. I couldn't even start therapy until they could put me in a wheelchair.

When I did start therapy, it was exhausting and incredibly painful. I cried all the time, wanting to go home. But we began to make progress. My doctors, nurses, and therapists supported me and encouraged me even when I wanted to give up, and they became like a second family to me.

When I finally went back to high school, it was overwhelming, but fortunately my friends were there for me. When I graduated, I went to college to study architecture. A lot of people didn't believe I would be able to study a discipline that required me to use my hands to draw. I had to prove I could do it. I used splints on my hands to help me when I was drawing, and I supplemented with computer design programs when I could. Not only did I finish the program, I graduated with honors.

Now I work for Harris-Kupfer Architects, Inc. They've been so supportive, even getting a handicap accessible office. My goal is to become a licensed architect so I can design residential buildings using universal design, which means considering the needs of all people, no matter their abilities. I have a unique perspective on two worlds that I'm able to bring to my designs because I know what it's like to walk, and I know what it's like to be in a wheelchair. The fact that some people can't walk up stairs or even turn doorknobs isn't something most people think about very often. I know I didn't.

I took a lot for granted before the accident. But despite all the challenges I've faced, I wouldn't change a thing. It might seem odd to say, but my injury gave me new opportunities. I found out so much about myself through my experience and learned to push myself to achieve my goals. I know now that if you can live with a disability, you can do just about anything. -As told by Carla Steppe to Meredith Purvis

To learn more about rehabilitation at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, please visit rehabilitation.kennedykrieger.org.

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