When we face significant life events we can gain beautifully formed diamonds of knowledge about what it means to live life and achieve goals. These diamonds are extremely valuable and I feel honored that Michelle Kephart allowed me to share her story with you.
I would love to learn more about you. Where did you grow up? How would you describe your childhood?
I grew up in an Air Force family, so we moved a few times. I was born in Southern California, went to elementary school in Maryland (just outside of Washington, D.C.), attended junior high and high school in Clovis, NM, and then finished high school and undergrad in Colorado. I lived in Colorado the longest and claim it as my home state.
Most of my time growing up was spent playing with my best friend, Koke, who was a wonderfully sweet and loving black lab. Because of her, animals have always been a big part of my life.
Can you take us back to the time period of the accident. What were you doing in your life at the time? What were your plans that day? Can you describe what transpired shortly after you fell? Is there anything you would want people to know specifically related to that day in your life?
At the time of the accident, I was in grad school at the University of Iowa Collage of Nursing in Iowa City. My good friend, David, was on a road trip from Virginia to California with his friend Devon. They stopped in Iowa City for the night and I decided to join them for the rest of their trip. It was a an awesome trip! We had so much fun climbing trees, climbing mountains, visiting friends, and enjoying all of the different landscapes we traveled through.
When we arrived in California we met with David's friends for a round of disc golf. I decided to climb a tree at the disc golf course and that's when my life changed.
The branches of the tree broke beneath me and I broke my neck (C-5 Spinal Cord Injury -quadriplegic). The people with me were outstanding! They didn't move me, they called 911 right away, and they helped me stay calm while we waited for the ambulance.
While I was waiting on the ground under the tree, my mind started drifting to a dark frightening place where I thought about my future. I started to panic and I made a strong final decision to only focus on right now.
I needed to get through that moment, and there was no reason to think about anything else. Besides, I had no information to base the future on, so why should I waste my energy thinking about it!
The next few weeks are a blur, but I really want the people present to know that it was completely an accident. No one is at fault.
What was it like to go back to school, especially since the rehab team encouraged you to take a year off?
Going back to school was the hardest thing I had done at that point. It was more difficult emotionally than being in the hospital.
At the hospital, I was asked:
"What are your goals for this hour? For today? For this week?"
Then we worked on those goals.
At school, I said "I want to graduate from nursing school." Some of the faculty said, "Okay, get to work!"
Other faculty said, "Wait! Are you capable of graduating? Can you become a nurse? Will anyone want to hire you?"
Those questions were a bigger problem than my paralysis.
The most remarkable part is that those questions have no value.
There is only one way to respond – “I don’t know”. Nobody will ever know the answer until success is attempted.
I had to fight for months just for the chance to continue school. At first the school allowed me to take 2 courses; one was online and the other met once a week. When I passed both with flying colors, I found myself facing more road blocks.
Rather than letting me try with the possibility of failing – which is the opportunity given to every other student – they made me prove myself before allowing me to continue my course work.
People are faced with these disabling meaningless questions every day.
It’s normal to consider them when you are first formulating a goal.
But, once you’re ready to pursue your goal those questions are not worthwhile.
No one else gets to decide what's possible for you.
No one else knows just how much you are capable of.
Maybe you don't even know what you're capable of, but the only way to find out is to try.
Can you describe a current typical "day in the life of Michelle"?
On work days, my caregiver comes to my apartment around 5:30 AM. She helps me dress and get ready for the day. The paratransit bus, a wheelchair accessible door-to-door service picks me up at 7:30 AM. Rides on this bus need to be scheduled a couple of days in advance.
Sometimes they take me directly to my nursing job at the clinic and sometimes we pick up and drop off other people along the way. I'm usually fortunate to have the same driver each morning who gets me to the clinic by 8:00, but there is never any arrival time guarantee and depending on the day I sometimes get to the clinic at 9:00.
I teach Medical Assisting classes twice a week from 2 PM - 6 PM. The school is about 2 miles from the clinic. Before I got my beautiful service dog, Rumba, I use to ride my wheelchair to school. It was a 30 minute commute and I could leave the clinic when I was ready to leave. Due to our unpredictable weather, I decided to start using the paratransit for this commute so that I didn't risk subjecting Rumba to the intense storms and heat we often have in Georgia. The paratransit bus is commonly late by 1-2 hours, so I schedule to be at school extra early. I've lost a few work hours to this, but that's better than being late to class.
Then the bus takes me home after work. The timing is unpredictable. Sometimes I leave work early, and sometimes I wait outside up to 2 hours after the buildings close, depending on when the bus can pick me up. Each day is unpredictable, but it is better than being stuck at home without a ride.
I try not to use the paratransit bus on my days off because anything outside of a normal routine can sometimes leave me stranded somewhere without a ride. If I decide to go somewhere on my days off, then I'll use the regular city bus. I drive my wheelchair 1 mile to the bus stop. The city bus is guaranteed to take 1-2 hours no matter where I go, but I don't have to schedule the ride in advance.
Is there anything else that you want readers of this blog post to know?
People are generally awesome. It can be difficult to ask for help, but I've found that most people enjoy the opportunity to help.
In addition, I feel like I'm complaining in some of my answers above so I want you to know that I'm generally not a complainer. I have a great life. Researchers have made a lot of progress recently for spinal cord injuries, but I'm not sitting around waiting for a cure. If a cure is found, I'll be ecstatic. But if it isn't, then I'll still be happy knowing that my life was fulfilling and I didn't waste any time.
I have to find different ways to do things, but I'm still living my life and following my dreams.
Thank you Michelle for sharing your story! Your story not only increases mobility awareness (National Mobility Awareness Month), but gives everyone an opportunity to connect, learn from you, and demonstrate love. Here are some of the diamonds in her story…