A math and science teacher at Dunn School in Los Olivos, California, Donna is one of those people who seem able to do anything, but we were all amazed when she told us about an automobile accident that changed her life when she was sixteen years old. Here is her inspiring story, in her own words, from an interview several years ago:
"I've been living in this area for seventeen years, and before I moved here, I had been everywhere imaginable. But today I want to tell you about one event that changed my whole life forever. Interestingly enough, the beginning of the story was when I was in sixth grade. My teacher had the entire class memorize a single poem. It was called Invictus. I still remember it:
"You might think that's a grim poem for sixth graders. It talks about times when life hands you very difficult things to deal with. Your life may not always be happy and bright; there may be hard times to get through-- but the message of the poem is that you will be strong enough to deal with these things. But it's your decision to make the best of what you've got; you are the master of your fate and captain of your soul. So when it comes down to it, no matter what happens, you have it within yourself to make the best of it and maybe even emerge with a positive outcome. I had to memorize that poem in sixth grade and for some reason, it stuck with me. Then, when I was 16 years old, it really came into play in my life. That's mainly what I want to talk to you about.
"My life dealt me a tragic, sad, and difficult blow when I was sixteen. I was just finishing my first year of high school, and I was in a very bad car wreck. There were four of us kids in the car, and we had a horrendous crash. It only involved our one car, but our car went completely out of control, flipped over, skidded against an embankment, smashed on the side of a mountain, rolled back over again, and it was a horrible wreck. It killed the driver. He was a friend of mine."
"The driver's side of the car was smashed horribly, that's how the driver died. And I was in the back seat behind him. My neck was broken. I was completely paralyzed. I had no feeling of anything below my neck. As I lay in the ER later, I thought maybe I was decapitated, because it wasn't just that I couldn't move anything -- I actually couldn't feel anything from my neck down. The doctors were all rushing around, and it was very traumatic, very scary. My parents were called and came to the hospital, and I heard the doctors telling my parents what happened."
"'See here on the x-rays?" they said, "The bones in her neck are totally crushed, and her spinal cord has been injured -- she is totally paralyzed.' It's called quadriplegic - all four of my limbs were paralyzed. My mother started crying. She said, 'She'll be okay; won't she?' The doctor said, 'We expect her to live, but she will never walk again. If she's lucky, she will be able to have some movement in her arms, but she will have no movement from her shoulders down. She will never walk again.' And my mother burst into tears."
"And then they wheeled me off and started doing all these things, putting me in traction, and trying to repair my neck. It was very difficult those first several days in the hospital. Everyone was very sad for me. Everyone that came in cried. It was very sad."
"There were two vertebrates in the middle of my neck that were totally crushed, pulverized. I don't have those two bones anymore; the doctors had to scrape them out. But if you don't have two vertebrates in your neck, you can't hold up your neck. So they cut off the top of my hip bone and molded it into the shape and size of the two vertebrates. Then they stretched out my neck, cleaned out the old vertebrate and dropped the bone from my hip in the space where they had been, and stitched me up. So I can hold up my head today because I have a big chunk of my hip in my neck!"
"I remember the last moments before the wreck. The driver was traveling too fast. The other people in the car said, 'Kevin, you better slow down. You're going too fast.' And then there were some headlights and a lot of swerving. The next thing I remember was weird. It was like those scenes in movies where things go in slow motion -- you might see little pieces of shining glass from the windshield just floating through the air in slow motion, and even the dust is suspended there - they do it as a special effect sometimes. That's exactly what happened. I was initially knocked out, but then as I came to, I could see that. The next thing I remember was someone looking in through the back window talking like a record on low speed. All in slow motion. Then I passed out again. I was in and out three times. And then they had to do the whole thing with the jaws of life, covering me up with a welding blanket and cutting with the torch. The seatbelt saved my life. We were all wearing seatbelts. I had bruises on my stomach for six months from that seatbelt."
"It had been a double date -- a road rally. The other guy was the navigator. The two girls would sit in the back, and you'd go on this course in a certain amount of time, but no one was supposed to speed. The other girl in the back seat with me was in a coma for two weeks but then she came out of it, and she was almost able to be back to normal. The other boy just had a cut on his face. The driver side, the side I was on, took most of the damage. But I had absolutely no pain. I felt nothing. That was the one benefit."
"When I was in junior high, I was really involved in the band. There was a large music department, and we had a marching band and a performing band, and it was a big part of my life. In fact, the band connection is a very important one in my story. I've told you the ugly part, but from here on the story is inspiring and funny."
"Let me back track to before the wreck -- I brought some pictures. Here I am in 8th grade, playing the clarinet. Here we are in the red uniforms; this is my junior high marching band in a parade. And here I am as a drummer. I loved playing the drums. Some of you may be involved in soccer or another sport or hobby that is the most fun thing that you do. For me, it was music and the band."
"When I went to high school, I was the drummer in a very large marching - the Patrick Henry band, and we would go to lots of parades where we would compete against other bands. It was a very proud thing to do well at a parade and win. I had decided that it would be the biggest thrill I could think of to become the drum major. You had to learn all the commands, the twirling of the baton -- you had to work all year on learning how to be the drum major. I entered a competition, and it was announced at a banquet on June 7 that I had won. That was Wednesday night. The following Friday, on June 9, I was in the car wreck. So there I was, two days later, totally paralyzed in a hospital bed. I was on the critical list for three weeks; they were worried that I couldn't breathe on my own."
"Everyone came to visit me, not knowing what to say, and just crying. I could not move anything. I just lay there. Do you know how long a day is when you cannot move and you're just in bed staring at the ceiling? The people in the band would come in and say,'Oh, man. This is really bad. Really sad.' And no one would say anything about the drum major thing."
"I figured my band director, Arne Christiansen, would come in and say, 'This is sad, but we're gonna have to move on. We're gonna have to let the person who came in second be the major. It's really too bad what happened to you.' And I was thinking, 'Oh man. That's gotta be really hard to tell someone.' But I knew it was coming."
"Three days after the wreck, Arne came into the room, and he had this little stuffed tiger that he had picked up from the gift shop. He set it on my chest, and he said, 'I got you this because I know you're a fighter, a tiger.' He asked a couple of polite questions, and then he finally got around to it. 'Well, about this position of assistant drum major.' I'm thinking, 'Here it comes.' But he said, 'I fully expect you to be there in September to fulfill that position.' And I thought 'Is he nuts? Hasn't anybody told him?' But I didn't say anything."
"And then it dawned on me, 'Why not? Why not?!" So I looked at him and I said, 'You got it. I'll be there.' He said, 'Good -- that's what I hoped you would say.' And he left."
"I hadn't moved. Still couldn't feel anything. I started thinking, 'Wait a second. Who is it that's telling me I'll never walk again? It's the doctors. Well, I respect the doctors, sure. But I'm also sixteen years old; I'm a little rebellious. What do the doctors really know? I had a lot of time to think. They came to this conclusion based on what? It had to be based on other people with the same injuries as me. Well, how many of those injuries have they seen? A hundred? A thousand? How many have they seen exactly like me? Maybe the chances are one in a thousand that I'll walk again; maybe the chances are one in a million. Have they seen a million of these injuries exactly like me? I don't think so. So maybe they don't know. Maybe the doctors don't know for sure.'"
"And that's all it took. The band director saying 'I expect you to do it.' So I just lay there, concentrating, trying to move anything. I kept bugging people, 'Is anything moving? Is anything moving?' They'd say, 'No. Nothing's moving.'"
"But then, 'Wait - that was your right toe. Your right toe just moved!'"
"'Really? Is it moving now?'"
"'Yes. It's moving now.'"
"And suddenly I could move my right toe. And then I would just keep trying, and little by little, I was able to move more and more. The doctors still kept saying that I'd never walk again. But it was one of those things that once you got going, nobody could tell you that you couldn't do it."
"And that's when that poem came back to me. I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul. It gave me the knowledge that I could only accept something for myself that I truly believed. If you decide that something is all you can do, or the best you can do, then it is. When you decide that it is your own destiny, it's true and acceptable to you. But don't let anyone tell you what your destiny is. Because your destiny comes from inside you."
"They needed to do surgery to fix my neck or else my head wouldn't stand up. Normally they would do that as soon as possible, but two days after my band director came in, I was able to start moving my right toe and right ankle, and the doctors came in and they couldn't believe it. 'What is happening here?' I said, 'I'm going to walk again.' And they said, 'Besides that, what is happening here?' My doctor was caring and sensitive enough to say, 'Hold it. We don't want to go in and do this surgery yet because there is something happening there and we don't want to upset it.' There was something going on between my brain and the nerves in my spinal cord that the doctors didn't understand and so they decided to wait to see what would happen, and as they waited, I got to move a little more every day."
"I concentrated so hard. It was dead of night, and I'm lying there in the hospital, trying desperately to move something. All of a sudden, one of the times that I stopped trying, something smacked me right in the face, and scared the crud out of me. So I'm lying there in the dark, gasping. I couldn't move anything, couldn't even push a button to call a nurse, but I had this rubber ball that hung by my cheek, and I had to move it with my mouth. Finally, the nurse comes in, and turns on the lights, and looks at me. 'It's your hand! It's your hand!' I had no idea what I had done to get it there. In my intense concentration, I had somehow managed to get it up and wave it about, and when I quit trying, it fell on my face."
"'Get it off,' I said."
"So she picked my arm up and got it off my face."
"But the exciting thing was I had somehow gotten my arm up in the air, if only I could remember what I did. From that point on, my mission was to figure out how I had done that. So in the daylight, I decided to try again, and sure enough, all of a sudden, it worked."
"Can you imagine having to relearn all those pathways in a different way? So I could move my right leg some, and now my right hand some. They didn't understand, but they decided to hang back and not rush in and mess anything up. They waited for three weeks and then they said we have to go in and fix your neck. I said no, but they said they had to, so they went in and did my neck. They looked at my spinal cord and there was a cut nearly halfway through it. They told my mother, 'We have seen the cut in the spinal cord. It's amazing that she has some movement, but that's it. Nothing else is going to come back.' "
"One week after I had my wreck, a fourteen year old boy named Brian dove into a pond of shallow water and broke his neck. He was very seriously paralyzed. His cord damage was up so high, there was no way they could fix it. They put us in a large hospital room together because we were both about the same age, and we were both paralyzed, so we would lie there and talk for hours, because, as I said, there's nothing to do when you can't move at all. And we became good friends."
"There was one night when I was just starting to get a little better - I had gotten my right side back, and I had just come out of surgery, and they told me that was it. I was lucky to have my right side back, but that was it, done, all. Brian, meanwhile, was very, very sick. He had a bad ear infection and a high fever, and he was delirious. He was screaming, and he was in pain all through the night. The nurses rolled me out of the room and into another part of the hospital because they were afraid his screams would be too disturbing to me."
"So they took the little bed that I was strapped to, and they wheeled me out into this other room at the other end of the hallway. It was about three o'clock in the morning, and I was still able to hear Brian screaming. He was in so much pain and delirium, and he was hallucinating that horrible things were happening to him. His screams were echoing throughout the hallway. I thought, 'If I get through this, it's gonna be because of my faith in the Lord, and the man that gave me the inspiration to try -- Arne.' And I figured the combination of those two things was probably gonna get me through. So I'm lying there, hearing Brian scream, and I thought, 'I better pray.'"
"I said, 'Lord, you have given me back so much already, I know you're looking after me. I know you're helping me. So, please help Brian, because he's in so much pain, and his brain is telling him that terrible things are happening to him.' And, crazy sixteen year old, that I was, I said, 'If it's too much for you, Lord to take care of both of us right now, could you please forget about me for awhile? Take care of Brian instead, 'cause he really needs it.'"
"It was the first time that I had ever put someone else in front of me and made another person more important than me. The very next day, I could suddenly start to move my left ankle, and the day after, my left foot, and then my left leg started coming back, and within two weeks, this huge snowball of all of this movement started coming back, and it truly was a miracle. And I know this moment had something to do with it -- the moment that I actually put someone else ahead of me in importance."
The feistiness of a sixteen-year-old -- the whole time that I was getting better, all the adults around me were saying, 'This isn't going to work.' For a time, they wanted to send psychologists in because I was denial, unable to accept the fact that I was going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. And so they sent psychologists in to talk to me. And they sent in other people in wheelchairs to talk to me and tell me that life was gonna be grand in a wheelchair."
"This was at the end of my first year of high school, and I had been nearly a straight A student. They sent a tutor in to tutor me in the middle of the summer. I said, 'A tutor? It's summer.' And they said, 'You're going to rapidly fall behind if you can return to school.' This was before there was a lot of awareness about the rights of disabled people. They told me that I was going to go to a school for 'crippled children' and that I couldn't go back to a regular school. At that time, if you were in a wheelchair, you went to a special school, and you were treated different. And so I told them, 'You know what? This is all silly. I am going back to school on the first day of school because I am going to be the drum major.' They were very worried about my psychological health."
"I did go back to school on the first day. I was in a body cast, and I was pushing a wheelchair around. I was still in traction. They had to keep my neck straight to heal, so they put a metal band around my head and they screwed screws to my head and put me up to a big rack and hooked it to a body cast. You haven't lived until you've heard screws going into your skull. It sounds like torture, but I decided it wasn't gonna stop me. I went to the band camp and played the drums, and I went swimming with this contraption on. They even toilet papered me!"
"So I did indeed become the drum major of my band. And so much more."
"I've done a lot of things. As part of that wreck, I also messed up my shoulder. My doctor, a carefree guy, said , "We'll have to do surgery on your shoulder so your arm will stay in the socket." A year later, I'm riding a horse, and the horse goes into a riverbed on all these rocks. I fall off the horse and bruise my shoulder. I go to the emergency room, and they do all these x-rays, and they tell me, 'Okay, your shoulder's fine, no broken bones - but what's this staple? You've got two metal staples in your shoulder.'"
"'I do? Where did they come from?'"
"So I went back to my orthopedic surgeon and I told him I had fallen off a horse and hurt my shoulder. He said, 'What were you doing riding a horse? Are you crazy? You had a broken neck!' I said, 'I don't care about that. Why didn't you tell me you put staples in my shoulder?!'"
"I have done a lot of horseback riding, downhill skiing (which also terrified my doctor), hiking in the Himalayas, and all sorts of things -- let alone walking, which is something that people thought I'd never do again."
"I showed the doctors, and it goes right back to being master of my fate, and captain of my soul. It is about who you are, and what you feel about the powers that are around you. The powers that are around us are amazing! When we consciously tap into those powers, anything is possible."
"And sometimes all it takes is one sentence, one word of encouragement, someone believing in you, to make the connection to all that power within yourself and around yourself. And you know what? Any of us can do that same thing for someone else. A simple word of encouragement to one person-- you never know what a difference that might make to that one person."
"They came in one time and said, 'We have great news. You're gonna walk again.' I said, 'I know that.'"
"'But it's gonna be with leg braces on both legs'."
"I said, 'Drum majors can't wear leg braces.' I just kept working and working and getting stronger and stronger. Right leg doesn't need a brace. Left leg will need a full leg brace. They measured my left leg for the full leg brace, and two weeks later, when the brace was ready, my leg was so much stronger, I didn't need a full leg brace. So they measured me for a half leg brace, and I said, 'If you feel you must,' and by the time the half leg brace came two weeks later, I didn't need the half leg brace, and they said, 'Well, you will need an ankle brace.' (Yawn.)"
"I learned how to twirl, too. It's amazing what you can do if you want to do it badly enough. I was able to twirl it by using the left hand as little as possible and the right hand a lot. I practiced until I figured out a way to make it work. I also played the saxophone in a jazz band and I figured out a way to get this hand to work the keys. It worked beautifully because I wanted it badly enough. I didn't need a perfect left hand. It wasn't critical to me beyond that. I accomplished my goals."
"It was all on TV and in the news. 'Girl Overcomes Doubts to Walk Again!' Doctors still shake their heads and say that they don't know how it happened."
"You make your decisions. You make the decision and if that's your destiny, you determine how to achieve it, and you find comfort in it. The big message isn't that you can go out and conquer the world - it's about being at peace with where you are in it.
"Music was my major interest. Music and marching were my passions. Focus the energy towards the passion! If there hadn't been the focus of the music, there would have been a different focus, but the band director inspired me, and my drive was the goal of being able to be in the band."
"But my first career was in geology. When I took a geology class, I loved it because most of the work was outdoors, and to me, it seemed logical and easy. When you have melted rock, and suddenly the rock above it is cracked open, then that melted rock will shoot out and cool -- and that's how a volcano forms. I thought, 'that makes sense.' It makes very real sense. Then the sandstones form little sediments, then heat builds up, and pressure builds up, and they become another rock. 'I get that.' Very easy and logical."
"The earth can be read like a book -- a book that's been torn, some of the pieces blown away, partially burned here and there, and all the pages shuffled. Sometimes you can see a page number and sometimes you can see a character's name. I guess it's a combination of a puzzle and a book."
"I come into teaching later in my life. But it's a choice that comes from a feeling of wanting to give back, wanting to inspire young people, and trying to make the world better in this way."
"Two years after the accident, Arne asked me an interesting question. We were on the bus going to a band competition, and he said, 'Given all the events of these last two years, do you consider yourself a fortunate or unlucky person?' "
"I was quiet for a moment. 'I find myself to be very fortunate.'"
"'I thought you'd see it that way,' he said."