Blindside to the Flip Side

No one believes tragedy can hit home. We have this mindset that it happens to other people, not to ourselves, our loved ones, or someone we know. I was living a life that seemed perfect and what most people would call “normal.” Growing up in in a small town, Muskego, Wisconsin, with my supportive parents and four brothers, provided me with a stable family life. In turn, it molded me into an outgoing, positive, and confident young woman living life with dreams and aspirations—until that unimaginable tragedy struck me and my family’s lives. My positivity, confidence, and faith would soon be put to the test.

What was about to happen next blindsided me, my family, friends, and our entire community. We learned quickly just how fragile we really are and how life can change in just a blink of an eye, without any notice.

The night of March 16, 1997, my designated driver made a critical decision that profoundly changed my life forever. After giving a bachelorette party for my future sister-in-law, I was one of four passengers in a horrific drunk driving accident. My world as I knew it changed forever.

Only minutes away from home my designated driver, who unbeknown to me was drunk, approached a bend in the road and decided to pass another vehicle on the wrong side, at 85 miles per hour. We began to fishtail. He counter steered. The truck lost traction. We were out of control. The ditch consumed us and sucked the truck in. We went up and over, rolling three or four times, smashing into a tree. The truck landed upside down, and I was ejected out of the vehicle.

As I lay numb and seemingly lifeless on that cold frostbitten ground....broken and clothes were being cut and torn off me to expose my entire body, so my injuries were revealed and could be assessed. It was still unknown that I had injured C3, C5, and C6 vertebrae, which basically meant I was paralyzed from the chest down, also known as quadriplegia. I had no idea that I was being stripped of my dignity and modesty. This was only the beginning of a new life where dignity and privacy would become nonexistent.

At the age of 24, my so called “normal” life became anything but normal. I was stripped of my livelihood, career, dignity, pride, and most importantly, independence! I struggled day in and day out with the loss of everyday capabilities we all take for granted, such as walking, writing my own name, doing my hair and make-up, brushing my teeth, and having the function to go to the bathroom on my own.

I was now living my life with many questions, but no answers.

Why did I survive that horrific night? What was my purpose in this world now? Could I ever be that same auntie I had been prior to this horrific day? How would or could I co-exist with the rest of the world in this capacity? Could I somehow get “normal” back into my life? Would men look at me the same way? More importantly, would I be able to have my own family and carry a child as I had always envisioned? AND the number one question everyone is thinking, but is afraid to ask...Would I even have the ability and capability to have sex?

My heart was aching for answers, but for the moment they would go unanswered. This was only the beginning of my epic experience filled with questions, mystery, uncertainty, and a whole new outlook on everything I had always believed in. I realized that the adjustment and the learning process of the reality behind life with a spinal cord injury and paralysis was not going to be easy.

Could I do this?

It would have been so easy to quit. Struggle after struggle, obstacle after obstacle, I chose to fight the fight instead. As I began my days filled with intense occupational, physical, and recreational therapy I would befriend the key part to my occupational therapist, Debbie Bebeau, who is now a clinical instructor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I did something that is outstanding in the eyes of adversity...I trusted. Yes! I trusted her every word. I trusted the process of beginning, literally, a new life. I was fortunate to have found her (or rather she found me) during the most critical part of my recovery, because realistically not everyone is that blessed.

The stronger I became the more aggressive our therapy sessions became, and I remember being so attentive to Debbie’s every word. One of the first things I remember learning from Debbie was a word that I will never forget…tenodesis, which is basically the motion of the wrist and fingers that occurs during active or passive wrist flexion or extension. By following Debbie’s directions, focusing on my tenodesis, and pure determination, I was able to take my limited mobility and function to relearn abilities I had lost. At first I was using adaptive equipment to write my name, brush my teeth, do my hair and make-up, and type on my computer, but today I use very little equipment. I type with my pinkie finger’s knuckle and I apply my make-up like every woman does (I do use my mouth a lot to hold tubes and covers) flawlessly, I might add! I rocked rehab and am rockin’ ‘n’ rollin’ my life today. All because of the support from someone who truly cared and understood. My fears were calmed, my questions answered, and the unknown, hidden behind my brave face, had disappeared.

Debbie became my go-to person who answered every question I had. We had this great connection and a mutual trust. My rehab became about me and about what I wanted and needed to learn and take home with me in order to survive in this state. As we all know, once we leave rehab we need to be prepared to be on our own. Fortunately for me, Debbie never left and was there guiding me as I began getting involved in life again.

Debbie reminded me often that I was still the same Jenny who I was prior to my SCI and that my body may have changed physically, but I was still the same person on the inside. It was up to me now.

My decision.

My spinal cord injury was not rolling these wheels anymore; I was in control!

Debbie introduced me to a program within my hospital’s spinal cord injury (SCI) unit, Peer Counseling. It gave me an opportunity to replicate what she had done for me. I became that trusted friend for others going through the same struggles I had faced as a newly injured quadriplegic. It’s necessity to have someplace or someone to turn to after an SCI who truly understands what you are going through.

About two years post injury, Debbie encouraged me to get involved in the Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin pageant, which showcases the achievements of women who happen to be wheelchair users to successfully educate and advocate for individuals living with a disability. Later that year, I was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin and was representing my state in the National Ms. Wheelchair America Pageant in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. My platform was simple: The consequences of drinking and driving.

This particular experience became a significant time in my life that represented another new beginning for me. I had a voice again, a purpose in life, and a newfound confidence. I found the courage to get out of the long-term abusive relationship, with my designated driver, that had been holding me back for many years, and that caused a series of unimaginable incidences prior to, leading up to, and after that tragic night that no young girl or woman should ever have to encounter. I grew in a positive direction from this tragedy, but my designated driver (ex-boyfriend) did not. I caught him drinking and driving again, which killed me inside. I couldn’t watch him jeopardize innocent victims’ lives anymore. So...I left and have never looked back!

Today, I am living life as a thriving C5-C6 quadriplegic. I know this sounds almost impossible, but my life has changed in a positive direction and in many amazing ways.

It’s been over 15 years since the accident and Debbie is still my friend and go-to person. She became a professor at UW-Madison and invites me often to share my story with her students and give them the hands-on experience, which every student appreciates. We make a great pair!

It became a natural progression to launch a career as a motivational, inspirational, and educational speaker and ROLL model. Over the years, I have spoken to schools, colleges, universities, churches, conventions, and conferences, bringing awareness and education to a countless number of children, teens, and adults of all ages on issues that include the consequences of drinking and driving, good decision making, abusive relationships, living life with a traumatic injury, the importance of occupational and physical therapy, the need for medical research, and overcoming adversity, just to name a few. I have touched more people than I can even fathom.

Today, I’m also an advice columnist for an online magazine called My column, “Hey Jen!” is a safe, interactive forum that I created to share my personal story, struggles, obstacles, triumphs, achievements, and successes with my readers, physically challenged or not, to discuss anything and everything that may be on their minds.

I play an active role and volunteer within the community, for such organizations as the Fashion Show for All Abilities, Ice Age Trail Alliance, and the Bryon Riesch Paralysis Foundation, and I recently teamed up with BACKBONES.

In November 2011 I was honored with the National Volunteer Accessibility Achievement Award from the Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Park Planning, Facilities and Lands for Superior Accomplishments in Advancing the Concept of “Universal Access” within the National Park Service.

In June 2012 I was given the Jefferson Award. I am extremely honored to be chosen for such a prestigious award, created by the amazing Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Robert Taft, Jr., and Samuel Beard. To be categorized with outstanding individuals whom I’ve looked up to throughout my life such as Oprah Winfrey and Lance Armstrong is quite humbling!

In my free time I participate in adaptive water-skiing, kayaking, hiking, boating, traveling, and like most girls, shopping. Recently, I attended a Shooting Sports Workshop for women with disabilities and learned how to shoot three types of rifles and a crossbow. The number one passion in my life is being an auntie to my six nieces and nephews.

None of this would be possible without my occupational therapist and dear friend, Debbie Bebeau. She saved me, not only physically, but more importantly, emotionally. Without her dedication, I wouldn’t have had the courage to continue living life…at least really live life.

To learn more about my personal story and to read a detailed journal of the moments and mere seconds leading up to that disastrous event go to
Facebook: This Is How I Roll or
E-mail “Hey Jen!” (it may be chosen to appear in my next entry!)

Bryon Riesch Paralysis Foundation:
Ice Age Trail Alliance:
MobileWomen magazine:

Jenny Addis