Thrill-Seeker Has Led ‘Wonderfully Fulfilling Life’ Since Accident
VIENNA, Va. – At 67, Sharon Hovey says she is ready to settle down.
An Ashville native and self-described thrill-seeker, Ms. Hovey says she has lived her life on the edge – though bound to a wheelchair for the last 50 years by Quadriplegia.
”That’s always been my personality,” Ms. Hovey said with a laugh from her home in Vienna, Va. ”I’ve always thought that if you were to take a whole bunch of spinal-cord injured parapalegics and quadriplegics and then did a poll, you would find they’re a bunch of crazy thrill-seekers – and that’s why they broke their backs and necks in the first place. Like me, it’s probably what they keep on doing.”
Injured at an amusement park in Belgium in the summer of 1958, Ms. Hovey said she never let her accident’s location keep her from enjoying everything life has to offer. Aside from such professional accolades as being twice named Outstanding Handicapped Federal Employee of the Year, Ms. Hovey cites riding roller coasters and motorcycles as the most exciting things she has done during her life.
”I’m a biker babe wannabe,” she jokes.
Born July 1, 1941, to Raymond and Evelyn Hovey, Sharon turned 17 in the summer of 1958.
”I was young,” Ms. Hovey said, recalling the month when her life was forever changed. ”I was 17 for just 13 days before my accident.”
A soon-to-be Chautauqua Central School senior, Ms. Hovey was one of eight students from the county visiting foreign countries as part of exchange programs that July.
While staying with a host family in Ghent, Belgium, young Sharon fell from an amusement park ride – breaking her neck. Early reports described the injury as similar to that of Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella, who had fractured a pair of Vertebrae in a car accident only a few months earlier.
In the days following the accident, Ms. Hovey’s condition remained serious, and red tape was cut to allow for her to be transported by helicopter to a hospital in Brussels and for her mother to obtain an emergency passport. To make the move to Brussels, a dispatch was sent from Belgium to London to obtain a special stretcher, and workmen toiled throughout the night to remove a flagpole and more than 20 trees so the helicopter could land.
Though all medical expenses were covered by the American Field Service, the intercultural organization in charge of the exchange program, a benefit dinner was held at Chautauqua Central School – raising more than $1,100 to help cover Mrs. Hovey’s travel and living expenses.
Still grateful to her family and the community for all the support she has received over the years, Ms. Hovey said she remembers thinking her mother’s trip was not necessary at the time – as she did not believe it when doctors told her she might not recover.
”They were saying I wouldn’t live, but I knew I was as healthy and as unaffected as ever,” Ms. Hovey said in a phone interview with The Post-Journal on Nov. 19. ”We were of meager means and so when my mom arrived, the first thing I said to her was, ‘Mom, I’m alright. There’s no reason to be here. Don’t worry.”’
While recuperating at Saint-Jean Hospital in Brussels, a doctor told Ms. Hovey that she was facing at least nine months of recovery. The news was devastating – to the point that Sharon told her mother she would rather be dead than miss her senior year.
In late August 1958, Ms. Hovey arrived at Idelwild Airport in New York City. There she was again told that it might be months before she could return home to Ashville.
”That’s when I chose, and I’m sure it was a conscious decision, to just be in Denial,” Ms. Hovey said. ”That went on for probably three or four years. People usually go through all the normal steps of grief and Depression and anger, but I never had any of that.
”I think that since I was such a good patient and because I loved my therapy and doing all that, the doctors probably figured that as long as I was doing what I was supposed to do, why tell me that it was permanent? They just let me go on believing,” Ms. Hovey continued. ”I think people are usually told those things right up front, but for me, this was the best way to go. Years later, my older brother said to me, ‘I can’t believe how stupid you are,’ in terms of thinking that the injury wasn’t permanent. I can’t really pinpoint a specific time that I knew it was permanent. It was sort of a gradual realization.”
After extensive treatment at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, Ms. Hovey returned to Chautauqua Central School in April 1959 to finish her senior year. Her classmates, who had followed her saga from the start in letters from Brussels and stories in the newspaper, chose Sharon as the year’s commencement speaker. The address, which Ms. Hovey delivered from her wheelchair, was entitled ”Wheels.”
AFTER HIGH SCHOOL
A leader in her class, Ms. Hovey had been president of the school’s student council when she left for Belgium – a title which she retained throughout her recovery, though a classmate served as acting president in her absence. A member of the Junior and Senior National Honor Society, Ms. Hovey had also been participated in chorus, intramural athletics and the Future Teachers of America club.
Going into her senior year at school, Ms. Hovey had planned on becoming a teacher or a nurse. However, when she was recuperating at Bellevue Hospital, she was forced to consider other career paths.
”Back when I was in rehab in New York City, they didn’t want to burst my bubble,” Ms. Hovey said of the doctors, ”but there was one evil witch. She was the vocational counselor who would come to see me to talk about my future, and she had the audacity to try to get me to talk about what I would do if I was always going to be in a wheelchair. I was in such denial about that. I found her to be such a witch that I decided that I wanted to be a vocational Rehabilitation counselor, and that I would never do that to somebody.”
In the fall of 1959, Ms. Hovey started college at the University of Illinois, which at the time was one of few schools with an entire program to accommodate disabled students, according to Ms. Hovey. In accommodating disabled students, however, the school required that students still be totally independent – which Ms. Hovey was not at the time.
”After the nine months of therapy in New York and I came home, I was able to brush my teeth and wash my face and hands,” Ms. Hovey said. ”That’s all I could do. So when the guy at Illinois in charge of the program to accommodate the disabled students said I had to be totally independent, I went back home and tried and tried, but still couldn’t do anything.”
According to Ms. Hovey, her freshman class was a first – with the school accepting four students prior to orientation in an effort to try and help them become independent.
”So I got dropped off by my mom and dad, and was totally dependent, and they drove away,” Ms. Hovey said. ”The good news is that you do what you have got to do in a situation like that. And I swear to God, I was totally independent within a week. I remember the first time I successfully did a transfer onto the toilet and back into my wheel chair. It took me three hours. … They didn’t baby you.”
Years later, Ms. Hovey asked her mother how she and her father could have dropped off their totally dependent quadriplegic daughter like that. Explaining her mother’s decision, Ms. Hovey said her mother knew that a life of dependency was one which Sharon would not have accepted.
”It shows you how tough my mom was,” Ms. Hovey said, ”because my dad, he would have kept me home and babied me.”
CAREER, ACCOMPLISHMENTS & LATER LIFE
In 1965, Sharon Hovey graduated the University of Illinois with her bachelor’s and a master’s degree in education. That same year she married Jonathan Wilkin – a quadriplegic disabled in a motorcycle accident who she met while at college.
For eight years, beginning in 1968, Ms. Hovey worked as a vocational rehabilitation counselor in Washington D.C. In 1968, she moved to a Virginia suburb of D.C. and took a job with the federal government – on the Department of Labor’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
”Most of my career was in implementation of the laws that had been passed,” Ms. Hovey said. ”I was very active in the local chapter here of what was then called the National Paraplegia Foundation and is now called the National Spinal Cord Injury Foundation. That’s where the activism really started.”
Among her many accomplishments, Ms. Hovey cites being one of a small group of individuals who successfully lobbied Congress to overturn President Richard Nixon’s veto of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as a standout. She attended the inaugural parade for President Jimmy Carter and was one of 10 federal employees selected to meet with Carter – taking the opportunity to ”steal” a White House pad of paper from the cabinet meeting room. Additionally, she attended an inaugural reception with Nancy Reagan and the signing by President George H. W. Bush of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the Rose Garden.
In 1984, Ms. Hovey and her husband divorced. The experience is one of a few ”bumps in the road” Ms. Hovey mentions when recounting the details of her later life. In 1997, she severely ripped and tore her left rotator cuff, resulting in a total loss of independence. With her shoulder irreparably damaged, Ms. Hovey required an in-home attendant care for three years – until her brother challenged her to start doing things for herself again.
”As I have aged and worn down, assistive technology has been a godsend,” Ms. Hovey said. ”After 30 years of using a manual wheelchair, my shoulders were wearing out, necessitating the use of a wonderfully-liberating motorized wheelchair. After ripping out my shoulder in 1997, a ceiling mounted lifting system enabled me to do transfers at the bed, toilet, and shower. Also, no longer able to use the mechanical hand control for driving, installation of an electronic hand control got me back on the road, completing my return to an independent lifestyle.”
Though she has spent the majority of her life outside of Chautauqua County, Ms. Hovey said she returned to Ashville regularly throughout the last few decades – visiting family and her high school classmates.
”Before I ripped out my shoulder, I used to be able to drive a long distance … so I was going up there every year,” Ms. Hovey said. ”We always had class reunions, so I’ve had a lot of contact with home.”
In 1988, Ms. Hovey was again asked to give the commencement speech at Chautauqua Central School.
”It was just powerfully important to me because it gave me an opportunity to personally thank the community for all of their support and strength that they gave me,” Ms. Hovey said. ”I’ve always felt such a debt to my community and my family for what I’ve done. I guess what is most important to me is that everybody knows that I’ve done well.
”Sometimes people will say to me, ‘Well, Sharon, do you think that your life would have been better if you hadn’t had your accident?’ And my answer has always been that I don’t think it would have been better, but it would have been different,” Ms. Hovey continued. ”It probably would have been equally as well. Probably I would have married and had children and would have had the normal, regular kind of family life versus a much more high-profile and exciting life. But I would say neither one would be better, just different.”
By Nicholas L. Dean