Finding mission through tragedy

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, June 13th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: finding life’s mission through personal tragedy.

2019 World Journalism Institute graduates Maryn Robson and John Vence recently met up with a woman living with quadriplegia in Northwest Iowa.

She’s learned not only to live life to the fullest. But now uses her disability to help others.

Maryn narrates the story.

CARTER: Let’s start the car and everything is central to my small little range of motion here. Yeah. Gas and brake on the left and steering on the right.

MARYN ROBSON, REPORTER: Erica Carter drives herself to work without ever touching the wheel. Her foot never presses the gas pedal. A small computer stands just to the right of her wheelchair. By touching it with her knuckles, she starts and stops the car.

CARTER: And if I decide I want those off while I’m driving a button by my head that can actually use to shut it off …

That button does a lot of things. She uses it to turn on blinkers, activate cruise control—and honk the horn.

AUDIO: [Sound of horn] 

CARTER: Really aggressive. And it makes you sound like you’re really mad. Unfortunately there’s no like quick you know get going. ‘Cause you in my way.

Carter was paralyzed from the neck down in a freak accident in 20-10. She’s spent the last decade learning to live as a quadriplegic.

She wants the same sense of autonomy that she had when she skied alone in the mountains as a young adult.

CARTER: I mean, there’s no other feeling. You’re flying down going as fast as you are and you’re totally in control and just a really amazing feeling, and I remember looking around being like, ‘Man, you better enjoy this because people don’t get to do this every day.’

And soon, she wouldn’t either.

On a snowy, spring afternoon nine years ago, Carter decided to go for a run. She remembers bending over to tie her shoes, the way she had hundreds of times before. She remembers her dog, Roscoe, ever so slightly nudging her. She remembers losing her balance, hitting her head, and waking up with no feeling in 90 percent of her body.

CARTER: I felt like I was just a head not attached to anything. I was like: “What’s going on?” I looked over to my right and my arm was just laying there. And I look and I’m like OK arm moves and nothing at all.

To this day, doctors don’t know why the small fall caused such a severe injury. Their best guess is that a prior ski accident damaged her spine, and the fall finished the job.

But when they looked at the splintered remains of her C-5 vertebrae, they knew one thing for sure: Erica Carter would never tie her own shoes again.

After the accident, Carter lost more than physical control of her body. Her friendships became strained. Her marriage disintegrated. In those first few months at the hospital, she couldn’t even breathe on her own. She didn’t want to live.

CARTER: I was really really upset with the doctors. This is a really cruel joke. Why would you leave somebody alive that cannot move from the neck down…If I was a dog, you guys would have put me down and put me out of my misery. I was like: “why is this any different.” I was really, really mad.

But other quadriplegics came to visit her and told her about their scars and struggles. They said if she worked hard, she might regain some level of mobility.

Those words were a lifeline. They convinced her to endure years of physical therapy—just to learn how to breathe and slightly move her arms again.

CARTER: There’s nothing that an able-bodied person tells you that sinks in at all, because you’re like, ‘Well, it’s easy for you to say, it’s going to get better.’ But when somebody in your own shoes tells you that you’re like, ‘OK I’m not the only one in the world going through this.’           

Carter rolls through the hallways in her humming wheelchair. Max, her black Labradoodle, walks next to her.

Her workspace looks like any other office—except without a desk chair.

VENCE: Busy day?
CARTER: You know, we’re at the end of the fiscal year…

Max jumps into his seat next to the window as soon as they enter the room. Papers cover Carter’s desk so she can easily reach them. The walls are mostly bare—except for a calendar, a drawing from her niece, and a painting that just showed up one day.

CARTER: My office has become a hodgepodge. Like if you find a painting laying around just go hang it in Erica’s office and she won’t take it down because she can’t reach it.             

Carter acknowledges that life without the use of her body is difficult. But she also considers what life would be like if she never had her accident.

CARTER: I would have just lived out on my acreage. I would have been really simple. Probably struggled, and probably would have been really boring.

That perspective has come with time. At first, she questioned God and asked why He took her away her mobility.

CARTER: In my anger period, I was really mad at God. I really do firmly believe that these things do happen for a reason to specific people. There was a purpose, and there is a reason it was me…

And Carter found that purpose in working to help domestic abuse victims. She visits hospitals to comfort quadriplegics the way others did for her nine years ago. And Carter’s not done. She has a list of things left to accomplish.

CARTER: I’m definitely open for anything you see. Just spur of the moment: “Let’s see if I can get on a glider…”

Next year, she’s embarking on a two-week tour of Europe. After that, Carter is determined to return to the ski slopes—not to watch, but to ski—even as a quadriplegic.

CARTER: The thing that I’ve been really grow from in this is knowing that we all have our challenges and my challenges just happen to be physical.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Maryn Robson reporting from Sioux City, Iowa.

(Photo/Creative Commons, Mark Bridge)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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