By Elaine Courtney Stefanowicz
Forty years in a wheelchair sounds like a prison sentence with no time off for good behavior.
It seems weird to even say, “40 years since my car accident.” Forty years of laughter, tears, hard work, being lazy, rejoicing, regretting, overeating, dieting, overeating again, medicated depression, Type 2 Diabetes. Dating, marriage, a baby, divorce, brokenheartedness, 21 years of singlehood with a few flings thrown in, new love in my 50s. Hospital stays for spinal cord injury, childbirth, gallbladder removal, skin issues, a broken femur, UTIs and kidney stones. Losing fellow wheelchair users to UTIs, pressure sores, heart issues, addiction, suicide, sepsis. I’m lucky to be here.
Forty years ago, I was in a car accident. A dumb last-minute decision to go to a party five minutes down the road. It was 1982 and I was offered a ride with a cute guy in a Trans Am. Times were different then: no seatbelts required and the belief I was an immortal 17-year-old. The driver turned out to be drunk, crashed the car, and I was thrown through the windshield and landed in blackberry bushes. A T-7 level spinal cord injury was the result. I say that now like it’s my drink order at Starbucks. It meant that I’m paralyzed from my chest down. I was in the hospital for almost six months. I met two of my best friends in rehab (no, not the kind for drugs and alcohol). We terrorized the hospital, played practical jokes on each other, and set off the hospital smoke alarm smoking pot in the hallway. I don’t think the hospital staff ever forgot us and I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. <smile>
A lot of the credit for my successful transition to life in a wheelchair, must be given to my parents. No two people were more devoted, supportive, and loving than they were. Sadly, my mom passed away several years ago, but my dad is almost 93 and living his best life.
While in the hospital, I had an amazing tutor named Nancy Smith who helped me to graduate on time. She took me to my first Shakespearean play and taught me I was smarter than I realized. I found out that I’m still Elaine, just the sit-down version. After graduation, I went to vocational school to learn to be a travel consultant. I was going to change the travel industry for people with disabilities. It was six months of showing up every day, wearing business attire, and learning a trade that sounded interesting and fun. I was only a travel agent for a few months (minimum wage and no benefits), but it was my first baby step to being successful in school. But first, the work world.
For the next several years, I worked hard and had my first mortgage when I was 21. In 1990, I met my future husband who was a weekend musician and a great guy. In 1996, I won the Ms. Wheelchair America Pageant. It’s not a beauty pageant (no bathing suits or talent requirement—thank God) but you competed based on your public speaking ability and advocacy in the disability community. It was an amazing year of travel, public appearances and being a spokesperson. I visited President and Mrs. Clinton at the White House and met actor Christopher Reeve who had crystal blue eyes I can’t quite explain <fawn>. From there, I won a full-ride scholarship to earn my bachelor’s degree. I’m a person who took 17 years to earn my associate degree because of my fear of math. I took a class called “Overcoming Math Anxiety” and it changed my whole life. I finished my master’s degree with a 4.00 GPA because of that class.
In 1999, the greatest person ever came into my life…my beautiful son, Michael. Childbirth is probably the easiest thing to do when you’re paralyzed — no labor pains and a front row parking spot at the hospital. Yay, me! Although my marriage didn’t last, we were great co-parents with a mutual love for our wonderful son. I was single for 21 years and figured I wouldn’t be in a relationship again, so I started researching doctorate programs. Who said, “Life happens when you’re making other plans”? Somehow, I found love again in my 50s during a pandemic! How the heck did that happen?
My son is now 23 years old and still the light of my life. I have a great job, a sweet
dog named Benny and a relationship that makes me happy. Life is good. I’m sure a lot of people thought my life would be tragic after a tragedy happened. I think most who know me would say that I’m the least “tragic” person they know. Do I gripe over disabled parking abuse? Of course! Do I speak loudly about my political beliefs? You bet. Am I happy 57-year-old who considers herself a “work in progress?” Most definitely. Here’s to the next 40 years.