Waiting for my four closest girlfriends to arrive at my house, I could barely contain my excitement.
It was May 23, 2010, my bachelorette party, and a day I had spent hours meticulously planning and looking forward to for months. First we were going to enjoy a girlie shopping trip where I would be trying on my beautiful wedding dress to show my friends, then it would be back to my home for a barbecue followed by a night of dancing.
It was about a month before my wedding and since my fiancé, Chris Chapman, was three hours away camping with his dad, I was intent on enjoying the last of my single days with my favourite people.
The day was everything I had dreamt it would be. We had so much fun, laughing and reminiscing about all the good times we had shared when we were younger. My mum, Carol, came over for the barbecue and waved us off as we climbed into a limousine and headed to tour the local clubs. We danced and danced and danced before finally arriving back at my house at 2am, but none of us wanted the fun to end. “Let’s go swimming,” someone yelled.
Laughing and screaming we ran inside and changed into our bathing suits, ready to take a dip in my pool. Three of us, including me, were lifeguards, so I wasn’t worried.
Just like we had done countless times before, we started play fighting, pushing each other into the water and one of my bridesmaids playfully nudged me and suddenly I was falling in. It all happened so fast. I remember putting my arms out to turn my jump into a dive, but I was leaping into the shallow end. My reflexes were slow and suddenly my arms were bent back and I hit my head on the bottom of the pool. I heard a really loud snap and instantly
all feeling left my body. I knew I had broken my neck.
My body just shut off but I somehow floated to the surface so my face was out of the water and managed to scream to my friends, “Help!” before I started to go under again. Terrified, I could see my legs floating in the water, but I couldn’t feel them. “I can’t move,” I gasped as, panicking, the girls pulled me out of the pool and called 911.
Everything was surreal as I waited for the paramedics to arrive. I tried to stay calm but images of what my wedding was supposed to be flashed in my mind – my dress, walking down the aisle, our first dance... What was going to happen now? I just lay there, not daring to try to move as I didn’t want to cause any more damage. When the paramedic arrived I looked at him and said, “I need to know how many people you have seen walk away from an injury like this.”
The medic was honest enough to respond. “In the 30 years I’ve been doing this, I have seen one person walk away.” And right away I replied, “Well I will be the second.” My bridesmaids were by my side at the hospital after a series of tests confirmed I would never walk again. The doctors explained that I had suffered an injury to my spinal cord at C6. That meant I had no feeling from the chest down. This level of injury meant that I was now going to be living almost as a quadriplegic. I could move my arms, but it was impossible to move my fingers.
But it was enough to give me hope – and I was determined to gain as much strength in my arms and upper body as possible. “I need a phone,” I whispered, fear clutching my chest. “I want to talk to Chris.” But as I waited for him to pick up, my mouth went dry. How would I tell the man I love, the man who was about to become my husband, that things were never going to be the same again?
I’d met Chris when I was 19. We’d both been at East Carolina University and bonded over our passion for sports and nature. Amazingly we had grown up just a few blocks away from each other in our hometown of Virginia Beach, in the United States, but had never met before. We were friends at first. Love came slowly. For months I think Chris just thought of me as one of the boys because I was such a tomboy. He had a girlfriend, but when she broke up with him I was there to lend an ear.
Slowly things started to change between us. I knew as soon as soon as we started to date he was the man I was going to marry. He felt the same way. We both just knew we were meant to be together. Waiting on the line for him to answer, I was scared. He was so far away on his camping trip that I had no choice but to tell him over the phone.
I knew I had to keep calm so he wouldn’t worry during the three-hour drive back. Somehow I found the strength not to cry and calmly explained what had happened and that I was paralysed. I said very plainly, “I broke my neck and I’m probably not going to walk.” I though it was only fair to be very clear.
Of course, Chris was completely in shock, but I think the calmness of my voice helped him. “I’ll be there as soon as I can,” he said. “I’m leaving now.” I hung up and realised that everything was different now. But I knew I had to accept the situation and move forward and not wallow in the terrible tragedy of the situation.
It’s only natural that your mind goes to that dark place. I worried if Chris would still want me as his wife now that I’d be in a wheelchair. But from the moment he walked into the hospital room and looked me in the eye I knew he would love me no matter what, and I have never questioned that since.
We cried together and we knew it would be difficult, but when doctors told us we could still have a family we clung to that. “You’re just the same. I still love you,” he said.
Adapting to a new reality
I spent weeks in hospital as doctors did test after test and started me on intensive therapy. I was in my local hospital, but after afew weeks, I moved to a better-equipped hospital for rehab in Greenville, North Carolina. While I was there, I worked hard to learn important life skills like how to use my wheelchair and get dressed with limited use of my hands.
I had always been fiercely independent and being paralysed wasn’t going to change that. I also wanted to defy the odds and walk again, and to do that I needed to be in the best shape possible.
As our wedding date, June 27, came and went I sank into depression. How could I not? Instead of walking down the aisle to marry Chris, I was stuck in hospital learning to bathe myself. I hated having to postpone my wedding, but with rising medical bills and my lack of strength there was just no other option.
Chris is a teacher and I worked for a non-profit organisation, so there was no way we could pay for all the therapy I needed as well as the wedding, so we decided to put it off until things were a little more stable. But through it all I was bolstered by the love and support of Chris, my family and my friends. I knew if I could dig deep and find inner strength, I would get through this. It was that thought that helped pull me through some of my darkest hours.
I would lie in bed and think of my gorgeous white gown, and I grew more and more determined that one day I would get to finally wear it. But no matter how much I was suffering, it was an even tougher time for my friend who had playfully pushed me into the pool that night. She was utterly grief stricken about the accident, but never once did I blame her. We had all been horsing around, and it was just a dreadful accident that could have happened to any one of us.
But she was struggling. She would break down every time she came to see me. Often I’d comfort her because she felt so bad, but not once did I question our friendship. I love her and she is my best friend. Watching her go through this with me made me feel even closer to her. There was never any reason for her to apologise to me as I never thought she had done anything wrong.
Instead of worrying about the past, I was too busy focusing on the future. The doctors and nurses told me how amazed they were at how fast I was progressing. I even joined a competitive wheelchair rugby team, determined to keep my passion for sports alive. A year later, I am able to now use an iPad to email and make phone calls. I’ve gotten really good at using the outside of my hand on the touch screen because I have no use of my fingers.
My mum moved in to help me, and has been with us since the accident. We have no idea what we’d do without her. Her help has been an incredible gift to us. Over a year after the accident, on July 22, 2011, we were ready to have our dream wedding. I had lost a lot of weight and had my original strapless white gown made smaller to fit me.
Putting it on with my mum and bridesmaids around me was something I will never forget. As I turned myself around to look in the mirror I was amazed at how gorgeous the dress looked, despite me being in a chair. I had wanted a rustic, elegant, fun feel to the big day and that was achieved through amazing decor and beautiful touches at every turn. There were sunflowers everywhere!
I was nervous, like any bride, but I had my best friends, including the girl who had pushed me in the pool, as my bridesmaids. Our journey to becoming man and wife had been a long time coming, but as my dad Larry pushed me down the aisle beside Chris, I couldn’t stop grinning. ‘You look beautiful,’ he whispered.
Because I cannot stand, we arranged for Chris to sit next to me as we exchanged our self-penned vows. We were able to look into each other’s eyes when we said our ‘I dos’. Finally it was time for the buffet lunch that included a mixture of Southern favourites like fried okra, seafood, steak and an assortment of fruit and cheeses.
After the ceremony we went to The Barn in Fearrington, North Carolina, for the reception. Chris and I entered the venue to our favourite song, Purple Haze, and shared our first dance to Rascal Flatts’ Won’t Let Go. We had practised Chris twirling me while I was in my chair and thankfully it all went well. Yes, I was a little sad at the thought of not dancing ‘normally’, but
I realised on that day it doesn’t have to be ‘normal’ to be perfect.
The next day we headed to Las Vegas for one night before leaving for our honeymoon in Fiji. We had a brilliant time, and I’m so happy being Mrs Chapman.
My body is getting stronger and so is my mental ability to cope with whatever life throws at me, so who knows what the future has in store! I know I have great friends, an amazing family and an unbelievable husband, and thanks to them, I have a bright future where anything is possible.
There are lots of things floating around my head. Getting to rehab. Becoming a public speaker. Writing a book. Finding a new place in the world. It’s hard enough just being 26, but these new challenges sure make my head spin! My life changed with the accident but it’s not over just because I’m paralysed. Instead of worrying about what I can’t do, I celebrate what I can.
Rachelle Friedman, 26, lives in Knightdale, North Carolina