‘Overnight, I went from a happy, active, able-bodied person to paralyzed from the waist down.’: Woman disabled in car accident candidly shares journey to self-acceptance

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“On March 21, 2021, my entire life changed. I feel like tragedies don’t ever seem like they can happen to you until they already are and you’re left to pick up the pieces. I went from a decently happy, active, able-bodied person to paralyzed from the waist down overnight; and not because I was acting reckless, or drunk driving, but because I was the wrong passenger, in the wrong car, at the wrong time. I think about choices and decisions I made years prior, wondering which one was the one that led to this specific chain of events. I am paralyzed. Me. And there’s a valid chance I may never walk again.

When you see someone get seriously injured on TV, or pass by a person in a chair on the street, an able-bodied mind doesn’t really process all of what that person may have gone through. I remember lying in the hospital laughing with my nurses about how I could’ve been on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, and as funny as it is to say, what my body, my family, and my friends had to go through during this is absolutely not. During the crash, I suffered a right orbital fracture, broke my back at the T12/L1 level, and the seatbelt severed about 70% of my small intestine. I had to be cut from the vehicle, and life flighted to UPMC Presbyterian Hospital where I was treated by several amazing surgeons I will never be able to thank enough.

While at the hospital, I underwent four surgeries (two on my abdomen, one on my spine, and one on my right eye). I spent three days on a vent in the ICU before I was transferred to the Neuro-Trauma floor where I was cared for by some of the most amazing women in the world for 21 days, and then transferred to UPMC Mercy for inpatient therapy. There are no amount of words to express how thankful I am for each nurse, therapist, and surgeon that helped me during this time. The love and care that was poured over my family and I is something unimaginable to anyone who couldn’t experience it with us, and ultimately set me up for success when I was able to leave. Unfortunately, the hardest part of this didn’t begin until I got home.

Woman paralyzed after a car accident takes a family photo
Courtesy of Roxanne Dunn

What I feel that most people don’t understand is all of the extra pieces that go into this besides the fact that my legs don’t work. I lost function of my body below the point of injury and while it does mostly mean my legs don’t work, it also means I can no longer use the restroom without assistive devices (catheters, suppositories, etc.). It means I lost sensation and sexual function for the time being. It means when I’m on my period I can’t just wear a tampon and be on my way anymore – overall, it means I entirely lost function below my injury level, and again, this may never change. I also lost the ability to return to my home. Obviously without the use of my legs, a second floor apartment was out of the question. This meant after working so hard for years to be physically and financially independent, I was forced to move back into my childhood bedroom at my parent’s house at the age of 24.

I ended my relationship; one I fully intended to be in for the rest of my life. I watched people rush back into my life immediately following the accident, and then drop off once I got home, as well as grieved when some just quietly excused themselves from my life without a word. I lost the ability to drive, meaning I can’t get away from the house when I need a break, or run to the store for a quick errand, or go see a friend when I want to. I stopped being invited to go places with friends, or asked on dates; I began to feel as though everyone saw me as a burden. I had to learn how to respond to toxic positivity, and accept the fact I will never ‘fully’ recover, no matter how much progress I make. I became completely dependent on my friends and family to care for me, and it broke my heart; it still does today.

Woman wheelchair bound after tragic car accident takes a photo with her family
Courtesy of Roxanne Dunn

It became glaringly apparent to me who was in my corner. My relationships with my parents and my brother have flourished, and the friends who wanted to be here have been amazing. My relationship with my best friend, Nnemelie, has been the brightest light on my darkest days. She is there to cry when I need to cry, to relentlessly remind me of my worth and of how loved I am, she prays when I need prayers, never lets me forget my purpose through Christ, celebrates each and every ounce of progress I make, and stays with me no matter what I go through. It is without a doubt that God placed her in my life to stand by my side for the rest of it, and I will spend the rest of my days trying to be as good for her as she’s been for me.

Woman takes a photo with her best friend during a backyard photoshoot
Courtesy of Roxanne Dunn

Since coming home, I have learned first and foremost that I need to cry just as much as I need to remain positive. It is okay that I am angry, and hurt, and sad. It is okay to grieve what I’ve lost while celebrating what I’ve gained. And while I’ve lost so much, I feel I’ve gained even more. Since the accident, I no longer struggle with anxiety and depression. I do not struggle with ADD and have been able to focus better than I ever have before. I am happy, even on my worst days. I found a new appreciation for life, and for my relationships with people, and with Christ. I’ve learned to set boundaries, and kindly demand to be treated with respect. I’ve made progress with my ability level at therapy, and have learned to mostly live independently from a chair. I’ve even begun to relearn to drive. This journey is just beginning for me, but it’s going to be a beautiful one. I am forever thankful to be alive and to gain back whatever function I can. I’ve learned to accept myself as I am each and every day, and feel beautiful despite the changes my body has undergone. The truth is, I’m more Roxanne Nicole Dunn than I’ve ever been before, and it’s only up from here.”

Woman smiles big for a photo while sitting in her wheelchair
Courtesy of Roxanne Dunn

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Roxanne Dunn. You can follow her journey on Instagram and Tik Tok. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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