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Yes, being paralyzed from the waist down can cause some inconveniences in daily life, but it isn’t the end of the world.

That’s the message Donnice Hildreth tries to get out in her longtime volunteer work helping others with disabilities. Hildreth, 42, runs two support groups at Tri-County Independent Living Inc. — one for fellow survivors of spinal cord injuries and the other a “cross-Disability” support group. She’s also on the board of the nonprofit organization.

Hildreth received an Occupational Therapy degree at San Jose State University in 1989. Having been hospitalized several times as a child, she said she wanted to work with children. But she spent most of her career working with adults — supervising occupational therapists in Crescent City, setting up work stations at Redwoods United Inc. and working in several departments at General Hospital in Eureka.

Then, after years of scoliosis, Hildreth was paralyzed from the waist down after spinal surgery in 2001. She said her professional work with disabled people meant she could accept her limitations without Denial.

“I knew I would not get the use of my legs back ever again,” she said.

But she said it took time to learn patience, since she wanted to push herself harder than her body would let her. In the years since then she’s found a balance between being as active as possible and recognizing that she has limited energy.

She said she has to be conscious of the need to shift her weight from side to side, something the average person does without thinking about it. She said people with no feeling in their thighs can sit in one position too long without realizing it, which can lead to pressure sores.

Her husband, Richard Hildreth, gets up every night to turn her in bed to prevent pressure sores form developing. Longtime friend and colleague Cindy Calderon called Richard “the most wonderful husband in the world.” Hildreth also receives in-home help with household chores when Richard is at work, and companionship from cat Clancy.

Along with volunteering she’s taking classes at College of the Redwoods. Serving on Tri-County’s board has been a chance to learn the daily operations of managing a nonprofit, from budgeting to planning activities, she said.

Calderon, a systems change advocate at Tri-County Independent Living, nominated Hildreth for recognition at the annual Northwest Committee for Employment of People with Disabilities luncheon last month. Calderon said the two of them became friends years ago working at Redwoods United.

“She’s just a shining example that disability — whether you’re born with it or you get one unexpectedly — it’s not the end of your life,” Calderon said.

She added that, watching Hildreth struggle with health problems after her surgery, she was inspired by “the fact that she never once complained, which is not even human.” In the year after being paralyzed Hildreth suffered from calcium deposits on her hip and an aneurysm in one artery requiring stents to keep it from erupting.

She and Richard Sherry formed the spinal cord injury support group in January 2004. The group includes people who’ve spent a year and a half to 45 years living with injuries, along with their care givers.

Along with a place to discuss “joys and frustrations,” get emotional support and make friends, the group also hosts guest speakers. They’ve included a neurologist, a psychotherapist who’s survived an injury himself and someone working on making hiking trails accessible for wheelchair users. In May a speaker will teach martial arts moves.

Hildreth said being disabled doesn’t mean lack of adventure. Along with learning martial arts while in a wheelchair, she and three others went out on Humboldt Bay last year with Disabled Outfitters, which has a special boat to accommodate wheelchairs.

She said she’s committed to dispelling myths about disabilities. Technology has improved to allow disabled people to do many things they couldn’t a generation ago, she said. Although Hildreth doesn’t drive she noted that people in wheelchairs can drive using hand controls, for example. And she points to national wheelchair baseball and basketball teams as evidence of the ability to stay active.

“There’s truly no limitations for people in wheelchairs,” she said.

For more information on any of the support groups call 445-8404.
By Sara Watson Arthurs The Times-Standard

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