In May of 2000, my fourteen-year- old daughter looked forward to making the volleyball team at her new school. Instead, Beth would begin her freshman year with a C6-7 spinal cord injury, the result of a car accident near our hometown in Ohio. I worried endlessly about school and her future.
“You don’t really have time to cope with things. You just kind of get thrown back into the world.”
She cut her stay short at the rehab hospital to start her first year of high school on time. She refused the easier option: tutoring. No matter that she was pale, tired, weak, and susceptible to infection. No matter that she could only push herself a short distance in her new manual wheelchair before her arms trembled and exhaustion set in.
“Life is about making choices. At this point, some people may have taken a year off of school to rest and build their strength at home. I wanted to start at Tiffin Columbian High School with the rest of my freshman class.”
Three months after the accident, a rare intense storm ushered in the first morning of school with hard driving rain. In the parking lot, I pulled Beth’s wheelchair from the trunk, zoomed to her open door, scooped her legs over the doorway, grabbed the side of her jeans, and lifted her to the wheelchair. My older daughter Maria held an umbrella over us until it broke. The soaked girls entered the building together.
“I began high school as a different person than I was in junior high.”
My well of worry overflowed that morning. At lunchtime, when I met a smiling Beth at school, I could breathe easier. She looked completely drained and I wanted to take her home to rest. She declined.
“Kids stared a lot at first. They wanted to get my attention, to talk to me, to see how I had changed. I was already used to being stared at.”
Beth sat next to a friend in each class. At first, they photocopied their class notes and handled her bookbag. Muscle spasms made her legs bounce straight out, rigid. Her friends could safely bend her knee to “break” the spasm and put her foot back on the footrest, before she figured out how to do it herself.
“I had a small group of very close friends who helped me in many ways.”
Beth and her friends painted the wheel covers for her chair to display school spirit. My daughter received a gift, an elegant silver and gold ring with a small diamond, engraved with the word HOPE. Her best friends wore identical rings.
“I tired easily and fought infections and a bout of pneumonia that first year in high school, but through it I learned how to take care of myself.”
On weekdays, I picked Beth up before the last class period. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, she fell asleep at home by 2:30 pm. The other three weekdays I drove her to outpatient physical therapy directly from school.
“I realized that my biggest challenge would be to insist on doing things myself and to become independent again.”
On the stormy day that Beth started high school in a wheelchair, I wish I had known that she would achieve independence—as a student at Harvard College. I had worried needlessly about her future.