One night changed the course of Megan McCauley’s young life.
The former chef at Carmel’s Bar and Restaurant was in an ATV accident Nov. 21, 2007, that left her paralyzed. It’s an unexpected twist in the now 24-year-old’s life, but not a tragic one, McCauley said.
She’s adapted — and not abandoned — her passion for cooking. Instead of working the lines in a restaurant, McCauley invites the world into her home kitchen through her recipe and tips Web site, www.theparaplegicchef.com.
“My main goal is to motivate and inspire anyone,” she said. “If I can do this from my chair, anyone can do it.”
It’s a positive message the Asheville resident hopes resonates outside the kitchen.
“I want to talk to anyone and everyone and share with them what I have to go through on a daily basis so that maybe one day, if it happened to them or someone in their family, they will think of me,” she said. “I also want to talk with newly injured patients and let them know that life does go on.”
In addition to the blog, McCauley serves as the official chef of Fight Pink, a Las Vegas-based group dedicated to supporting women battling breast cancer. She also volunteers with a local spinal cord injury support group and is planning a fundraiser at Biltmore Fitness in October.
The fundraiser, which she said will feature food and entertainment, will help her buy a hand cycle. Her latest goal is to train and participate for the annual Cycle to the Sea bike ride. Organized by Carolina’s Rehabilitation, it’s a 180-mile, three-day bike ride from Charlotte to Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“I want nothing more than to be able to hop on a bike and do this ride, not only for my health, but to prove to myself that I am capable of doing anything if I put my heart into it,” McCauley said.
A lifesaver and a life changer
The accident occurred in Charlotte the day before Thanksgiving 2007. McCauley and her longtime partner and supporter, Shannon Bruce, went there to celebrate with friends and family. McCauley, who was driving an ATV after hours of drinking, doesn’t remember the incident.
She awoke in a Charlotte hospital room about a week after the accident to learn that her spinal cord had been smashed.
“That means that I had no feeling, no movement and that my spinal cord was so damaged, I most likely would not get any of it back,” she said.
She could have died from her injuries, but McCauley said the accident saved her life. Her hard-partying lifestyle was putting her life at risk every time she hit the bottle.
“I did not see (the accident and injury) as depressing,” she said.
This attitude existed from the beginning, Bruce said. “The first thing she said when she came to in the hospital and realized that she was paralyzed was, ‘I don’t need to walk to love.’”
“I think that one sentence wraps up everything there is to know about Megan McCauley,” she added.
Looking on the bright side
This upbeat attitude doesn’t exactly match her tough exterior, her mother, Susan Austin said. With her piercings, star tattoos and edgy, short haircut, “one might get the wrong impression before you actually meet her,” she added. “Once she speaks, you find out how special she is.”
Pam Griffin, head of a spinal cord injury support group at CarePartners, agreed McCauley has “a very rare and distinctive attitude.”
CarePartners inpatient rehab hospital has served 42 people with nontraumatic and multitraumatic spinal cord injuries in the past 12 months, Griffin said. This number, however, doesn’t include the people, like McCauley, who live in Asheville but were treated elsewhere.
In Asheville, from Jan.1-Dec 31, 2008, Mission Hospital treated 18 patients with a spinal cord injury, which left them with some degree of disability, said spokesperson Merrell Gregory.
“(McCauley) volunteers and comes in to speak with our patients who are having problems with the grieving process,” Griffin said. “She wants to make sure there is awareness of the group and the fact that people with spinal cord injuries can have a fulfilled life.”
The support group for people experiencing a spinal cord injury and disease, as well as their caregivers, started in 2007. It has grown from about four people at the first meeting to typically 15-20 members at each session.
Bruce attends the support groups with McCauley and talks to the people she’s met online through her blog.
“She’s one that other injured — and not — look up to, and admire,” Bruce said.
Returning to her first passion
Although her injury prevents her from returning to her cooking job, she never stopped making meals in her home kitchen.
She didn’t adapt her kitchen in her apartment; only her approach to cooking. She uses a broom to knock down items from the cabinets; she’ll check the progress of dishes on the stove top by placing pans on a cutting board on her lap.
“Her cooking blog is, in a way, a therapy for her,” Bruce said. “This blog of hers displays her caring nature that strives to help others, her determination and perseverance.”
And people are starting to take notice. From Aug.1-26, the Web site had 1,603 page views from across the globe, including North America, South America, Africa, Australia, Asia and Europe, she said. She’s had as many as 144 page views in one day.
Stacy Martello, founder of Fight Pink, said you can see her passion for cooking and for life in her recipes. This quality is one of the reasons her group selected her to produce easy, healthy recipes for caregivers and people undergoing chemotherapy treatment.
McCauley has “this amazing ability to take something tragic, and turn a passion into a business while making a difference,” Martello said. “She is a mentor to others, not only the paraplegic community, but all communities.
By Carol Motsinger