The Chance to Dance
By Melanie Ave
We left the house early on a drizzly New Year’s Eve last year, headed to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. My husband’s alma mater, the University of Missouri Tigers, was facing my alma mater, the Oklahoma State University Cowboys.
As far as family adventures go, this holiday was going to be epic for my crew of four. We had never been to a bowl game together. It seemed perfect. Two teams. Two rivals. One family. We—expert road trippers who had traveled all over this beautiful country—were ready!
But what happened next would change our lives far more than any football game, teaching lessons about faith, family, community and prayer.
We were packed into our Subaru wearing our black and gold (the two fellas: MIZ-ZOU!) and orange and black (the two ladies: Go Pokes!) as we started on the four-hour drive from St. Louis. We had our bowl tickets. Our hotel room was booked. Happy new year, yeah baby. This was going to be so fun.
With my husband at the wheel, the Subaru, which we fondly called “Ruby Sube,” made its way onto Interstate 55. The teens snoozed in the backseat, enveloped by pillows and blankets. I cradled my coffee cup, magazines on my lap. The rain that had fallen the entire night before continued unabated. About an hour south of St. Louis, we were on the inside lane behind a semi-truck plowing through the sodden pavement. We passed a series of large boulders and jutting cliffs. Up ahead, an overpass loomed. Everything seemed so normal. Until it wasn’t.
The vehicle began to hydroplane and veered to the right, toward a steep embankment. My husband pumped the brakes. Nothing. He turned the wheel. Nothing.
Had the truck kicked up a bunch of water? Did we pass through a low part of the highway? Who knew? Time seemed to slow as the car slid sideways like a water skier taking a wide swoop behind a speeding boat.
The car left the highway and went airborne, flying above the culvert before slamming onto the watery grass in the valley below. It skidded perhaps 100 more feet before coming to a stop in front of the base of the next overpass.
Unbeknownst to us, a man named Mike Blevins had been driving his pickup just behind us. A lieutenant in the Glendale, Mo., Fire Department, Blevins had just finished an overnight shift at the fire station. (We later learned he then stopped at our friend’s house two blocks away to deliver firewood, delaying him just enough to witness our accident.) He pulled over, reached for his phone and dialed 911. Then he walked over to our car.
Inside, there was shocked silence. Except for me. “My back! My back! My back!” I screamed. I could not stop. The pain was so intense. I felt desperate. Scared. Crazed. I looked at my husband, “Please pray.”
After making sure everyone else in the car was OK (They were, thank you, merciful Jesus!), Blevins knelt at my side as we waited for the ambulance to arrive. He tried to calm me, keep me still, told me to think about my stunned children in the backseat. “You don’t want to scare them, do you?” he asked. I didn’t, but the pain overwhelmed my parental instincts.
When the paramedics finally arrived, they asked where I hurt. “Middle of my back,” I replied.
“Can you move your legs?” the dark-haired paramedic asked.
I looked down at my unmoving cowboy boots. I could not. I could not! I could not …
“Am I going to be paralyzed?” I asked everyone and anyone. My 15-year-old daughter sat beside me in the ambulance as the pain drugs poured into me through an IV. “Am I going to be paralyzed?” She met my question with glazed blue eyes and sealed lips.
At the hospital, doctors and nurses cut off my clothes, including my new bright orange OSU Cowboys sweatshirt, a Christmas present from my husband. “Do what you have to do,” I told them. They wheeled me into another room where a CT scan showed a burst T-12 vertebra. I needed emergency spinal surgery. The damage to my spinal cord was unknown.
“Am I going to be paralyzed?” I asked the emergency room doctor. He shook his head. “I don’t know. Possibly.” But I could move my toes, which indicated an “incomplete spinal cord injury.” Complete spinal cord injury = paralysis. Incomplete = hope I would walk again.
My husband wrote a post on his Facebook page: “Friends who pray: I need you now.”
I was transported to Mercy Hospital St. Louis, where I met my neurosurgeon, Dr. Tanya Quinn. Another surgery had just fallen through and the operating room was prepped and ready for me. I didn’t even have time to be afraid or to tell my husband to take good care of the kids should anything happen during surgery. There was no time for worried thoughts about unforeseeable events.
A chaplain prayed with us and off I went to surgery. Like with many traumatic injuries, time is of the essence with spinal cord trauma. The quicker the surgery, the less time there would be for swelling and inflammation that could cause further damage to my spinal cord and nerves. My husband tried to make a connection with Dr. Quinn, to make sure she understood how important I was to him, to our family, to others. She told him she felt good about the surgery. It was New Year’s Eve after all. It also was her 10th wedding anniversary to her husband, who was serving overseas with the U.S. Navy.
After four hours of surgery, I came out with five of my vertebrae fused together by a cage, rod and pins, hardware I will carry with me to my grave. I was practically bionic. My back looked like a zipper with dozens and dozens of staples. In ICU after surgery, I could move toes on both feet, but nothing else below my waist. Clearly, it would be a long recovery.
In all, I was hospitalized for 34 days, most of which were spent in the Spinal Cord Injury unit—or SCI, which sounds so science-fictiony cool—at Mercy Rehabilitation Hospital. During that time, I relearned how to roll over, to stand, and finally, to walk. It was hard, I’m not going to lie. There were tears, many of them. There was pain and discomfort and anger and sorrow and disappointment and humiliation and loneliness. But God is near in our suffering. I felt it. There were many victories, too. And even joy. I remember standing up for the first time. (In my hospital room, my husband and I gulped sparkling grape juice from plastic cups to celebrate!) I remember taking my first step on the parallel bars in the gym with wobbly Bambi legs. With lots of therapy and uncounted prayers, I eventually progressed from a wheelchair, to a walker, to two canes, to one cane, to one walking stick, to no assistive devices at all. Hard to believe. Yes, 2019 was truly epic.
I continued outpatient physical therapy for three months and returned to work at Concordia Seminary where my ever-so-cool co-workers welcomed me with an office festooned with Wonder Woman decorations. Day by day, month by month, I became stronger and stronger. As summer approached, I decided to pursue a new challenge.
As a child, I had loved watching old black and white movies of Shirley Temple tap dancing. And Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. It looked so fun! So when my physical therapist mentioned the idea of me taking a tap class as a way to work on my strength and balance, I was on board. Tap dancing became my physical therapy.
I enrolled in a community college beginning tap class, not knowing a soul. When fall came around, I enrolled in another beginning class. I recruited a friend. I wasn’t the greatest dancer. But it didn’t matter. My teacher told us: “If you aren’t smiling and having fun when you are tap dancing, something is wrong.”
On Dec. 7 at the St. Louis Veterans Administration Medical Center at Jefferson Barracks, about 30 dancers gave a Christmas recital for the injured vets there. I was happily on the back row, a reindeer tapping to “Little St. Nick” by the Beach Boys. It was the first recital of my life. There, cheering me on was my immediate family, and my mom, sister and brother-in-law who drove from Oklahoma and my occupational therapist who first met the non-walking me. She couldn’t stop laughing. This wasn’t just any old dance recital. It was a celebration of the miraculous journey of the last year. And what an honor to be able to do it in this way, for others, for the vets. Some of them were in wheelchairs just as I had been a few months prior. When I came home afterward, my family had a little party waiting for me, complete with a cake that had a picture of my tap shoes and the words: “Here’s to a lifetime of dancing.” Here’s to it!
One year ago, my back was broken, my body forever changed. I’ll never be what I was before Dec. 31, 2018, but that’s OK. I have come to terms with that. It’s a new me! Hip, hip, hooray! When my back is not feeling so great or my balance is wonky, I view it as a reminder that I—all of us—are not made for this world but for the next one to come. I, like Paul, have a thorn in my flesh.
I am choosing to be thankful for that thorn and all the good that has come as a result. Life is precious and fleeting, dear ones. Embrace it. Savor it. Be grateful for it. I am thankful for all of the beautiful people in my life. My husband and children and family, friends, neighbors, church members, co-workers, former co-workers, and strangers from all over the country who whispered a prayer, wrote a card, sent a text, shared well wishes on social media, delivered flowers, donated to a GoFundMe, brought food, called, visited and helped care for me.
I’m thankful that our wreck happened where it did instead of just behind or ahead of us. How different the outcome could have been, heaven forbid. I’m thankful for all the paramedics (Lt. Blevins included!), the doctors (Dr. Quinn!), the nurses (Amy!), the aids and the therapists (Kate and Melanie!) who helped me at my lowest. I will forever remember their kindness to me. I’m thankful for the little community of SCI patients, a few suffering souls of all ages, at Mercy Rehab.
Many prayers were answered on New Year’s Eve 2018. God gave me another year and a renewed sense of thankfulness for all of the little things that really are the big things in my life.
I’m thankful to God for protecting my life and that of my precious family. I’m thankful to God for sustaining me through the many challenges of the last year. I’m thankful that He gave me the gift to sit, to stand, to walk again. And the chance to dance.
P.S. In case you were wondering, the OSU Cowboys beat Mizzou 38-33 in the Liberty Bowl last year. Go Pokes!
P.P.S. This New Year’s Eve, our family will be staying home.
P.P.P.S. (Is that a thing?) I will be taking my third beginning tap class this January.
Melanie Ave is communications manager at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.