Photo by Heidi McClelland

By Marji Wisniewski

Over the last year, I have interviewed many amazing women and shared their stories with you. Interviewing Laura Jackson this month was a special privilege; not only is she strong, confident, and vibrant with magnetic energy, but she’s also my friend and a source of inspiration. Laura is a fierce advocate for disability rights and inclusion for people with all disabilities. She’s a great friend because she really listens and chooses to be present in the moment you are sharing with her. I wish all of you have an opportunity to meet her one day, but if that’s not possible, here is a piece of her positivity.

All of the following section headers are quotes from Christopher Reeve.

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Thinking back to the day of my injury, I remember it all so clearly. 

It was May 13th, 2003 — the second day of the Livonia Stevenson High School cheerleading tryouts. I was 14 and just finishing up eighth grade. My sister, Jenna, was the captain of the Junior Varsity team, and we were excited to go to tryouts together. Jenna and I had taken a tumbling class for at least six months to prepare and spent countless hours at home making up routines. 

At tryouts, the coaches divided us into two groups. Jenna’s group went off to learn a dance and my group went to a room to show off our tumbling skills. Rumor had it that if you could land a back tuck, you were a shoo-in for the team. 

I felt confident as I began my back tuck stunt, but quickly realized that something had gone very wrong. I had landed on my head. At first, I thought I had just had the wind knocked out of me. Then I had the sudden frightening realization that I couldn’t breathe or speak. It took the people around me a few minutes to grasp what was happening as I mouthed the words “I can’t breathe.” 

Jenna had come in from the other room and saw me lying on the ground, turning blue, and unresponsive. She couldn’t imagine what had happened. No one understood the gravity of the situation in those first moments. Although there were coaches on-site trained in CPR, they did not attempt to perform it on me. From what I’ve pieced together, I hadn’t taken a breath in over seven minutes when I was intubated by the EMTs in the gym.

I was taken to St. Mary’s in Livonia, where they quickly airlifted me via Survival Flight helicopter to C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. What had started out as a common cheer stunt had broken my neck in two places at my C1 and C2 vertebrae. I had instantly become a quadriplegic and would need a ventilator to breathe. 

The first two days in the hospital were very touch-and-go. Statistically, 95% of people who have the kind of break that I suffered don’t survive the trauma. Usually, immediate surgery is performed on the patient. However, I had so much swelling that they chose to wait. On day two in the hospital, my heart stopped seven times from the swelling at my brain stem. Despite delaying my surgery to stabilize me, by the fifth day the doctors decided that they had no other choice but to operate. I made it through the surgery where they performed a spinal fusion using a bone fragment from my hip, placed me in a halo to stabilize my neck, and performed a tracheostomy. I would spend the next seven months at Mott; for the first month in the ICU, I couldn’t speak or eat.

The days I spent recovering and learning how to live life in this new body were long and hard. It was a time of learning a strength and resilience that I never knew I had. It’s something you never want to learn, yet I found out what I was made of pretty quickly. 

With only time on my hands, I asked a lot of questions. The initial question was, “Why me?” I had to go through the process of coming to terms with the fact that some things just happen. Honestly, there were many days I wanted to throw myself a pity party, and I did. But being in the hospital with other children much younger than me, some in much worse situations, really put my life into perspective. It afforded me gratitude for the beautiful life that I had lived for the previous 14 years and the new life that I still had in front of me, however different it was going to be. 

“Unconditional love is everything.”

I’m the youngest of four girls in my family. At the time of my accident, Stephanie was 19, Crystal was 17, and Jenna was 16. And yes, my parents already had their hands full! The first 14 years of my life were filled with wonderful memories of going on vacations, having lots of friends and family around us at our house, and just being a busy kid. I tried pretty much every sport or activity out there. I loved to stretch myself out of my comfort zone. Right before my accident, I had gone on a two-week vacation to Florida and Universal Studios with my best friend. I was living the life!

I vividly remember my sisters coming into my hospital room during that first month when I couldn’t speak. I could tell they were angry with me. They had just found all of their favorite clothes that I had taken to Universal. I had hidden the clothes I had “borrowed” in my room so that they wouldn’t notice when I stealthily returned them one by one. However, I ended up in the hospital and couldn’t carry out my plan. By the time they finished yelling at me, I was laughing so hard I was in tears. I knew at that moment that although my body was completely different, I was still Laura, their little sister. Then they blew up two latex gloves and tied them to my halo and made an indecent gesture with them! I love how they were able to bring silliness to a horrible situation. 

I know that I would not be here without my family, first and foremost. I am blessed to continue to have the support system that I do in my friends, care staff, community, and church. Along my journey I’ve met people with similar injuries to mine who didn’t have the support system I have; unfortunately, they just don’t make it.

I was released from the hospital in early December 2003. I was happy to be able to spend Christmas at home. However, I remember crying as I left the bubble of the hospital room. I had lived there for seven months completely relying on and trusting everyone around me to care for me. I was worried and scared when I realized my parents would now have to take over that responsibility. I was like a newborn baby thrown into a whole new life and a whole new body. I had to trust a new set of people to know how to properly care for me. But my family was, and continues to be, amazing.

“To be able to feel the lightest touch really is a gift.”

About a year after coming home from the hospital, my parents and I decided to go to China for stem cell treatment. It was not a decision we made lightly, and I’m fairly sure the UM doctors didn’t want me to go. But we were determined to go through with it after meeting the surgeon, Dr. Wong, at the DMC Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan. He thought I would be a good candidate for the stem cell procedure. 

I was in awe when we arrived in Beijing. I spent the first week exploring the city with my parents and our Chinese-speaking nurse. At the hospital, I was surrounded by other patients from all over the world hoping for a successful stem cell surgery. The feeling of hope and anticipation around me was palpable.

During the surgery, I was given stem cells in two places on my vertebrae just above and below the site of my injury. After a few days in recovery, I was able to breathe for the first time without the aid of my ventilator for three minutes! That’s when I knew something special had happened. Before the surgery, I had a strap around my forehead to hold my head up in my wheelchair. Post-surgery, I was able to hold my head up by myself, move my head left, right, forward, and backward. I could even shrug my shoulders. This may not sound like much, but for me it was a huge victory. These small movements afforded me so much more freedom. 

Soon I was using a QuadJoy that allowed me to type on my computer with a straw/joystick tool that I held in my mouth. I puffed my cheeks and sipped to move the cursor and type. I could also text with another tool I put in my mouth that pushed the keys on my phone.

With the aid of these new technologies, I finished high school and went on to get my BA and MBA in business with a focus in marketing. I feel so fortunate to have had the ability to go to school. My brain was deprived of oxygen for at least seven minutes after the accident, but miraculously, I did not experience any cognitive loss. I love to learn and never take that for granted.

“Success is finding satisfaction in giving a little more than you take.”

Throughout my journey, I’ve found inspiration and fulfillment in advocating for disability rights and inclusion. One of my goals is to empower those with disabilities by providing resources and opportunities for purposeful employment. I am passionate about transforming the idea of what life can look like for people with disabilities in order for all to be active members of society.

One challenge that we face as disabled citizens is that the rules of Medicaid eligibility keep people with disabilities in poverty. Those who desire to work can’t make more than $16,000 a year (which means under $8 an hour for a full-time job). Once you surpass that salary amount, you’re no longer eligible for Medicaid. For me this would mean that I’d lose my 24-hour nursing care, medical supplies, and ventilator support. Basically, I’d lose everything that allows me to be able to work in the first place. I believe employment is so important. I’d like to contribute in a meaningful way to help pay for the services that I receive. But the way that the system is structured makes the reality of holding a full-time job not feasible for me.

Another challenge that disabled people face is that we live in a world of able-bodied people. It was not designed for those of us with disabilities. Although I’m thankful for the disability rights we do have, they need to not only be protected, but expanded. The disability community is a resilient, vibrant, and determined group, and we’ll continue to work for accessibility and inclusion for all! I hope to use my voice to help be the change that I want to see.

“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”

The late Christopher Reeve was someone I aspire to be like (which is why each section of this article starts with a quote from him). I admire the path that he paved for bringing awareness to spinal cord injuries. After he broke his neck in a horseback-riding accident in 1995, he lobbied for spinal cord injury research (including stem cell research) and for better insurance coverage for people with disabilities. His advocacy work included leading the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and co-founding the Reeve-Irvine Research Center. He was one of my first positive influences after my accident. I was fortunate enough to meet him right before he passed away. He showed me it was possible to thrive post-injury, and his attitude toward his new way of life inspired me.