It was February 2019, and I was 23 years old. This is when my journey to ‘Find New Roads’ began.
The day the North Country Chevrolet Dealers showed up to my therapy session with a brand new Chevy Equinox to give me – I was blown away. As they explained what they were doing and how easy it was for them to come to this decision, I realized… this was all done out of the goodness of their hearts. I started to imagine regaining a sense of independence and normalcy – two things I lost. I realized how lucky I was to have met such kind and generous people, and how I had more people than I could have imagined, cheering me on.
North Country Chevrolet Dealers introduced me to freedom.
Say ‘Hello’ to the 2019 Chevy Equinox
As part of the #StefFindsNewRoads partnership, I was offered a brand new 2019 Chevy Equinox, completely equipped with accessible hand controls! I had to relearn how to drive again, but this time it was with my hands. Training my brain and reflexes came surprisingly easy to me! The Chevy Equinox was the perfect fit. I now traveled with some baggage… bags, medical equipment, my walker, and/or wheelchair. Everything fit, including myself, my passengers, and my pup Oliver – comfortably!
“Hey, Miracle. How are you doing?” – a text message from Dr. Roberts, Stef’s Neurosurgeon.
As the Florida hospital put it, my medical team was made up of “the best of the best.” This included my Neurosurgeon, Dr. Roberts. I was incredibly lucky to be his patient, and though I was left with paralysis, it could have been far more extensive. He performed my nine-hour spinal surgery flawlessly, and now, every step I take I think of as a gift from Dr. Roberts. The nurses I had throughout my hospital stay were true miracle workers. I give them so much credit and appreciation, for not only working tireless shifts but for how they went above and beyond for me.
They became family.
For two years, surgeries were pretty much nonstop. I would heal from one and go right into the next. In each recovery, things never went as planned. There were always setbacks and complications, which tested my ability to stay positive and focused. I am proud to say that through it all, I was able to see the big picture and take one challenge at a time, knowing and believing that I would get through it all one day.
When I was asked to be a keynote speaker at a local, public event, my immediate reaction was to say “no.” Public speaking was always my greatest fear, but I had a story to share, and I felt an unfamiliar desire to say “yes.” Public speaking was always my greatest fear, but I had a story to share, and I felt an unfamiliar desire to say ‘yes’.
I knew I could either remain who I’d once been or see who I could become. Speaking that day opened up an entirely new path for me.
The “Gift of Life”
The ‘Gift of Life’ Marathon became a passion of mine. Advocating for blood donation was a way to use my new platform for good. Blood donation saved my life. At first, it was just one event, but as I went on radio stations, gave many interviews, and promoted the event on social media, working with the American Red Cross became a common and very fulfilling part of my life.
The Gift of Life Marathon is dear to my heart, and an event I’m involved with each year. Remember, you’re saving a life – or multiple!
Hitting the Slopes
I took a family road trip to Bretton Woods, NH where I took my one and only nordic cross-country skiing lesson. After that, I realized how much I missed the feeling of being an athlete and pushing myself at a sport, so I started teaching myself how to ski. It was a rough beginning with a lot of falls, but I have the hang of it now! I spend a lot of time in the winter packing skis into my Equinox and finding new trails. Skiing has become my absolute favorite way to spend my time, and I hope to soon be able to commit to training!
Moving On, In My Own Words
Writing a book about my story has always seemed inevitable, but it was actually a speech I gave while promoting The Gift of Life Marathon that the idea started to become a reality. I wrote every word myself and was involved in the editing and publishing process. While I was writing, I found the emotions were still raw. This book was my greatest form of therapy. I believe it truly allowed me to move on.
My physical therapists, the local community, and I created The Resilience Dinner Run to raise money for the nonprofit, The Heather Abbott Foundation, which awarded me a scholarship to cover my medically-necessary, prosthetic leg. Did you know, medically necessary or not, insurance companies do not cover these prostheses? This is when I knew I had a passion for advocacy.
3 Surgeries, 8 Months Later…
… I was back on two feet! After my last recovery setback, I spent eight months without wearing my prosthetic legs, and so, I had to find alternate ways to stay healthy, strong, and busy! I learned to kayak, I’d skied, and I completed a 30-mile race on my handcycle! I finally was feeling healed. I was able to wear my legs and get back to physical therapy.
National Limb Loss Awareness Month
I didn’t know April was Limb Loss and Limb Difference Awareness Month… or that it even existed. Until I lost my own legs. Now, I personally feel the power this day holds. It’s a day for survivors, and the families and friends of survivors, to be reminded there’s an entire community out there who have experienced similar challenges and achievements. The reality of living with limb loss is unknown to most, so i’ve found it to be so valuable, for myself, to have a dedicated day to comfort, educate, and share our stories.
One of my first post-accident realizations was that I wouldn’t be able to return to college. I was so close to graduating. When I was diagnosed with a brain injury, I worried my return to school wouldn’t only be delayed, but that it might be impossible. In the midst of my surgeries and recoveries, I completed my final courses online and graduated from Castleton University with high honors and a degree in Health Promotion.
June 30, 2020
Alive Day – Two Years
My “Alive Day” will always be important to me, but that two-year mark was different. Two years meant my statute of limitations was up, and I wouldn’t be able to try a civil case in court. This meant I was no longer able to file for payment or compensation. It was crushing. It felt as if someone was telling me these injuries no longer mattered as if we were all agreeing there would be no closure. My fight for justice had at first been for myself and my family. My injuries, surgeries, treatments, and necessary medical equipment totaled to be an estimated sum of $20 million dollars. However, it quickly became a fight for the next family who might vacation on that island in the Bahamas.
I wanted to create change. I craved a change for the safety of future tourists, and I wanted recognition for what happened. I wasn’t able to achieve either. Instead, I chose to forgive. I made peace, and I moved on
A Birthday Gift from North Country Chevy
Since my accident, each birthday feels special. When I count the days I would have missed, if June 30, 2018, ended differently, I often get emotional. I imagine how hard my birthday would be for my family if my story had ended that day.
This year, the North Country Chevy Dealers sent me a birthday gift certificate to one of my favorite local restaurants, Roots the Restaurant, which I used with my mom and my best friend Duffy. We drank mango margaritas and had veggie risotto! I appreciate the little moments now more than ever before. A day celebrating with my family feels so perfect.
Hitting the Trails
Once again, I found myself recovering from another surgery. I needed a way to spend time outdoors, enjoy summer, and stay active… I started handcycling! I’ve biked on trails all throughout New England now!
“My knees haven’t had any flexion since I was injured, which is why I had my first above-knee amputation. To try and save this one, my surgeon tried one more surgery… I’ve already had three other minor surgeries on this knee before, but they were nothing like this.”
I was terrified when I thought I’d need another above-knee amputation. Not only would the surgery be horrific, but I’d likely never be able to walk again. When my surgeon offered an alternative to amputation, I was of course still terrified, but knew I had to try. I’ve had a lot of surgeries, so I thought I knew what to expect, but this surgery was far worse than any I’d had before, and the recovery was extensive.
It’s the little things now that are making huge changes. Like being able to kneel, when before my knee was far too damaged for this to be possible. And being able to use my muscles in so many new ways that will make me so much more mobile.”
After my knee surgery, I couldn’t even attempt to get back into physical therapy until February. When I was finally back, I saw the benefits my knee surgery was going to have down the line. I was still very weak, but I was able to move my body in ways I couldn’t have pre-surgery – I was able to kneel and gain muscle strength.
March 26, 2021
1,000 Days, Post-Accident
When I was first hurt, I counted each day that passed. It was as if I was proving a point as to how much I was going through, and for how long. I’d even set a phone alert for when I would reach 1,000 days. When my alarm went off, I felt relieved. I realized, even though it sounds cliche, that somewhere along the line, I had stopped counting the days and started making the days count. This was my life now, and I was happy.
I celebrated another trip around the sun, I was 25 years old. My family and I went to Nevada to explore the wild, wild west for the first time post-accident.
Striving For The “Perfect Step”
With spinal cord injuries, there’s a major difference between what’s available and what’s affordable when it comes to treatment and recovery. There are clinics dedicated to making massive quality of life changes in those with spinal cord injuries. Somehow, this type of therapy isn’t covered by any health insurance companies, at least none that I’ve heard of.
When the Perfect Step Paralysis Recovery Center, a paralysis Recovery Center in Pomona, California, offered me a scholarship toward 50 hours of therapy, it was an amazing opportunity. The timing felt so right. Even with the therapy being covered, the trip was going to be and intense financial undertaking. And then… a message from from my North Country Chevrolet Dealer family came. The North Country Chevy Dealers sponsored me – making this opportunity a reality. I am so thankful to each of these dealers, who always stand up for me, provide me amazing opportunities, and seem to see as much potential in the opportunities before me, that I see for myself.
My experience at The Perfect Step was life-changing. The physical training was intense, I participated in three hours of specialized physical therapy, five days a week, for four weeks. It was the push I needed because up until this point, my recovery had constantly been interrupted. My time there was spent surrounded by people my age overcoming injuries similar to mine. I was finally happy with who I was again. P.S. – even my rental vehicle was a Chevrolet!
June 30, 2021
Alive Day – Three Years
My “Alive Day” will always serve as symbol of the day my life changed. This year, the day came and went. The memory of June 30th will always hurt. Literally. But now, June 30th is for future memories. When the calendar lands on this day, it’s just a day – available for the next adventure, an opportunity to “find new roads.”
Home Is Where You Make It
I planned to be home by July, but I was still in California. My family headed back to Vermont, while instead, I stayed behind. I was on my own for the first time in a very long time. My independence grew as I continued to train at The Perfect Step with my new California family – I felt privileged to be a part of a community like this. Extending my California stay was something I needed to do, for myself. I was training five days a week, exploring the West Coast and enjoying summer. I found everything I expected to find in Claremont, California. I also found so much more. I found people who have changed my life, a place that has changed my life, a place all the way across the country that now feels like a second home.
I felt alive. I felt like I left California a changed person.
Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Awareness Month
Again, I didn’t know National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month existed before my injuries. September is a month dedicated to bringing awareness to spinal cord injuries and celebrating those living with these conditions. When I was told that there was a definite injury to my spinal cord, it was a day that I will never forget. My spinal cord injury has been the hardest challenge of my recovery for me to accept and try to overcome…at times it’s felt even more challenging than the limb loss. It feels personal, as if your body is simply giving up on you. I’ve even found myself talking out loud to my impacted muscles begging them to wake up, listen to me, and “just do their job.” Like I said… It all feels so personal. Let’s talk about spinal cord injury awareness, and let’s celebrate those strong enough to live with them.
“Living with Purpose”
I was thrilled to be a keynote speaker at the Conspiracy of Goodness Network Summit, hosted by my friends at Ever Widening Circles. Vibe Portrait took an amazing glamor shot for promo, and alongside some amazing speakers, I shared how I rediscovered “my purpose” after my accident. The summit’s message couldn’t have been more fitting – “Where do you even start? This summit is your roadmap.”
“Back On My Two Feet”
My Gift of Life speech at The Paramount Theatre, where all of my speaking events began, was easily the most emotional one I’ve ever given – I could hardly speak at the beginning. Thank you to Stafford Technical Center Network for producing Anyone Can Need It – The Gift of Life Blood Drive 2021. I’m stunned each time this community comes together to lend support.
California, Here I Come (Again)
I was back in California, only this time it was to meet with a photographer! This was an incredible experience for me. He was shooting photos for my book cover, but he was also helping me to enter a new phase in my life…I signed a modeling contract! We took photos in the studio and on the sandy Venice Beach. I had so much fun, and again, felt the power in saying “yes” to opportunity.