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Quadriplegic, and empowered

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I didn’t die that day. Many were told and thought I would, but many more believed I wouldn’t.

Twenty years ago today circumstances collided: a summer northeaster, rain, fog, a branch, a slippery road … and now I have been a quadriplegic and a wheelchair user for half my life.

Tragic? It seemed so as I lay completely paralyzed, hooked up to a machine to breathe, in a coma for more than a month after fracturing my skull and breaking my neck, resulting in an irreversible spinal cord injury and paralysis.

Tragic is not a word I use to describe what happened to me that day. My experiences since my injury have been empowering, and I have many people to thank for that.

It was not anything I could do alone that enabled me to not only survive, but thrive. It was access to very good health insurance that funded the best health care available. It was access to benefits that allow me to hire personal care assistants, without whom I literally cannot get out of bed in the morning. It is a high-tech van with all the bells and whistles that I need to work, play and enjoy the healing beauty that surrounds me on Cape Cod. It is the support I have received from the Cape Cod community for all these years.

After 20 years of living with a spinal cord injury I have learned that disability is a prescription for empowerment. I didn’t realize the power of disability during the year I spent in the hospital immediately after my injury. That year, and the transition of living life with a disability, was a time of challenges, obstacles and fear of what lay ahead. It wasn’t until I returned home to the Cape I was able to really overcome challenges and gain wisdom from living with a disability. I was no longer fearful of what lay ahead.

The thousands of prescriptions my doctors have written treated me, but didn’t heal me. What healed me was the prescription for empowerment that I wrote for myself: my daily doses of experience, knowledge, strength and determination. Disability has given me the power to educate, advocate, motivate and inspire.

My voyage has been blessed by the safe harbor that is my mother, who has always been there. My dad is my GPS, always steering me in the right direction. My brother has always been and will always be my first mate, my protector. My friends and my extended family are my anchors.

The many women who have been my caregivers over the years are, quite literally, my bosun’s chair, physically lifting me out of bed every morning and assisting me with the most personal aspects of my care. My two nieces are my horizon, that faraway but beautiful place. Every child in my life, and every student I ever taught fill my sails and inspire me to do all I can to make sure they grow up in a world where the horizon is always bright.

And I never could have navigated these waters without the support of the community of the Cape. Cape Cod is much more than sand dunes and salty air … it is truly a community. It goes without saying that I owe my life to the good Samaritan who called the rescue squad and all the rescue and medical personnel who helped me that day.

Thank you to the Cape Cod business owners who have complied with the American with Disabilities Act and have made their businesses accessible. I hope many others will soon follow suit!

Many thanks to the Cape teachers who have invited me into their classrooms to speak to their students about people with disabilities, and to the local politicians who have listened to my views on issues affecting the disabled. I was given only a 10-year life expectancy at the age of 20. Thank you, Cape Cod!

By Laurel Labdon of Brewster

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