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Finding ‘The Gift in the Wound’

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For Laurie Kammer, Long Process of Healing is Well Under Way

Laurie Kammer, 27, is a daughter, a sister, a dancer, a ukulele player, a graphic artist, a young woman and a friend to many here in town, where she grew up and went to high school, graduating in 2003.

Since June, Laurie has also been paralyzed from the waist down after she fell from a tree in New Jersey.

After graduating from Eastern Connecticut State University with a degree in graphic design, Laurie had moved to New Jersey in 2009 to live with her brother, John, and his wife, Maria. She worked as a nanny for the couple’s two children.

This past summer, on June 9, she and a friend were in a tree house. They were about 15 feet up, she said, when a board she was standing on collapsed.

“When I fell I was completely conscious,” she wrote in the weeks after the fall, “…the slow motion, the thoughts, the purple pop of light when I hit and broke my spine, and the instant realization that I will not be able to dance if I cannot move my legs.”

Since her accident, Laurie’s father, Bob Kammer, has also moved to New Jersey. The family now lives in Morris Plains – where Bob, a former Ledyard Center School teacher who retired after 38 years, helps care for Laurie.

Except she doesn’t call what happened to her an accident. “It’s just one more day of my life, and that’s what happened on that day,” she said.

“Back in June, when everything was first happening, I couldn’t imagine what life was going to be like,” she said. “I thought by winter I’d be in a walker. But here I am in November, in my wheelchair. So I’m learning that having a spinal cord injury is so traumatic that it takes a very long time to heal.”

Healing process

For her, the word “heal” has broad meaning. It includes moving home and into her own bedroom, getting more organized, getting her own shower chair and a mat table that she can use to stretch and do her exercises. It includes practicing wheelies in her wheelchair, which are both fun and a basic skill, essential to negotiating curbs and other obstacles.

“Everything is sort of an obstacle when you’re just rolling through a parking lot, and you want to go to a store or a restaurant. Say there’s just a couple of steps in front of the store, and it looks flat, but it’s not really flat,” she said.

Managing pain is part of the healing process, too. “A daily challenge is what’s my pain level today? Because it changes every day. Even though it’s been five months, sometimes I feel as though it was just last week,” she said.

Laurie, said she reads from the Tao Te Ching every day, along with a book of prayers from around the world.

Little by little, healing is taking place.

“I had never been injured in my life, and I had never been in a situation where I had to be taken care of and have people do things for me,” she said. “So this has been part of the lesson, that I always try to see the gift in the wound. I like that phrase, because once you can work through a challenge, you feel like you’ve moved on, and you’re a stronger person because of it.”

Laurie participates in regular outpatient therapy at Kessler Institute in Morristown, where she is learning life skills and building strength in her upper body.

“I’m pretty sure that everyone like me says ‘my goal is to walk again.’ That’s the first thing that you’re thinking,” she said. “And they really help you shift to, ‘well, of course that’s what we all want for you. But how do we just get independent again?’”

She said she was never one to work out at the gym. “I was all legs. I was a dancer. I just loved having strong legs,” she said. “Now the focus has to be on my upper body. It’s new for me, and it was really scary at first. But it’s like any other challenge. You work through it, and then you realize that this is bringing me closer to my independence.”

Driving again will be huge, she said. “I had no idea that people with even higher injuries than I have could drive. It’s totally possible. I just didn’t know.”

‘Don’t ever give up’

Although independence is the goal, Laurie has not completely lost hope that one day she will walk – and dance – again.

“Some people say you’re going to get the most return in the first two years. Everyone has an opinion,” she said. “But talking to others who have had spinal cord injuries, I met one guy who was 10 years post-injury, and he was walking around. And he told me don’t ever give up, because your nerves are going to grow. No matter what, things come back. It just takes a very long time.”

Bob Kammer said there has been an outpouring of support from friends at home and former colleagues at Ledyard Center School. They helped him with the move to New Jersey and organized fund-raisers to help with Laurie’s medical expenses, including her mat table and, eventually, her own custom wheelchair.

Kammer and Laurie’s mother, Carol, are divorced. Kammer said she is able to visit Laurie from her home in Connecticut, but the family is really fortunate that he was retired and able to move to New Jersey. “We know how lucky we are,” he said. “We certainly have a lot to be thankful for.”

He is expecially thankful for his daughter. “I decided early on that she is perfect as she is,” he said.

Laurie, too, is thankful. She said she is still in awe of the wonderful people who cared for her, and grateful for the many friends from home who have visited and who regularly send their love and encouragement.

And she is thankful, she said, for the little things.

“When you can’t walk and you watch other people walking around and see how the body is such a beautiful and elaborate and intelligent design – people can be having conversations and their legs are moving and their feet are twitching and their toes are curling and their hips are shifting around. And for someone who can’t do that, when I see that, I stare in such awe at how perfect the body is made. So that is something to be thankful for every day,” she said.

“For me, I haven’t really lost anything. I still consider myself complete and whole,” she said. “I just have a new perspective on life and how I am a part of it.”

You can learn more about Laurie Kammer at her website.

By Bill Thorndike

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