Demonstrating a dedication to their calling even before entering the workforce, Cami Abernethy and Alissa Boyle made a decision almost eight months ago that has since left them forever changed.
In the morning darkness of February 20, 2012, an SUV came to a stop on its side with its roof facing on-coming traffic, blocking the left lane of I-79S in Perry Township, Pa. A local man had fallen asleep at the wheel and was unable to free himself from the vehicle.
Cami and Alissa, along with seven classmates and a professor, stopped at the scene even though they were en route to their clinical nursing studies in Morgantown, W. Va.
After pulling the stranger out of his vehicle through a hole in the windshield, the nursing students were assessing his medical condition when an oncoming tractor-trailer came barreling toward them. A few of the students quickly realized the tractor-trailer would be unable to stop, but as a result of the darkness, they did not realize they were on a bridge.
In the seconds that followed, the students fled for safety, reacting quickly to the oncoming danger. Cami and Alissa jumped over the cement barrier of the bridge, thinking they would land safely on the other side. Instead, they fell approximately 50 feet to the ground below and looked to their classmates for help in the moments that followed. The paramedics arrived and both women were taken to Ruby Memorial Hospital where they received operations related to their respective injuries.
In the weeks before the accident, both women counted down the days to graduation and talked about what the Lord had in store for their lives. In fact, just two days before the accident, on February 18, Alissa said yes to the man of her dreams when he asked for her hand in marriage. Little did they know that their lives would soon be forever changed both physically and spiritually.
For Cami, the initial plan was a second surgery six months after the first, to make sure that the rods placed in her back during the first surgery were the appropriate size for her body. That six month date has come and gone, and fortunately for Cami, her doctors determined that the surgery was not necessary at this point. As long as the rods are not causing her pain, Cami will not have to undergo surgery to adapt the size of the rods.
Following her first surgery, Cami was encouraged to walk as much as physically possible. So with her father by her side, she did just that.
“My father and I went to the park every day. I started with a half lap and worked my way to three laps and bleacher steps,” she said.
When her doctor had determined that her back had healed enough to begin physical therapy, Cami embraced the opportunity and spent three months building strength and range of motion.
Following the three months of therapy, Cami has continued to progress on her own using techniques introduced through her physical therapy sessions. Her progress slowly blossomed from lifting one gallon to 25 pounds to 50 pounds, where she is today.
Although Cami has remained positive and focused through the last eight months, she continues to battle the lasting effects of the day of the accident.
“The accident temporarily put my life on hold. I'm now to the place in my life where I should be because I've graduated and I have a career. I have no complaints because I can continue to travel the path I started before the accident,” she said.
Unwilling to let the accident further slow her goals, Cami finished school a month and a half ago and received word September 20 that she had passed her boards. She recently accepted a position with Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC in the neonatal intensive care unit and began working October 8.
“I'm definitely more motivated to succeed in life because I've received an extraordinary gift, and that's a second chance at life,” she said. “I have realized that February 20th wasn't my time to go and that there's something here on this earth that I need to complete before I leave. I want to make sure I do that, whatever it may be! This experience has driven me to be the best I can be and help as many people as I can during my time here.”
Cami said she has “no words to describe the thanks I have for my friends, family and the Waynesburg community.” She is also grateful that her friend Alissa has been by her side through her entire recovery process.
“I know she feels the same way. I know it sounds wrong to say, but we both have said we feel blessed to have gone through this together and not alone,” she said.
Both women feel grateful to their classmates for the way they responded to their injuries.
“My fellow nursing students saved our lives that day and they are my heroes. I wouldn't have wanted anyone else taking care of me that morning.”
As for the community, Cami said there was not a day that went by where she did not receive a card, flowers or a phone call.
“Knowing that people were praying for me and cared about me, kept me going,” she said. “And of course I owe my family the world for helping me through. Alissa and I are blessed to have all these wonderful people in our lives.”
For Alissa, the challenges have been more significant as she has not regained feeling in her lower limbs. Since the accident, Alissa has experienced two surgeries (February 20 and February 29). The first involved the insertion of rods and the use of a piece of bone from her hip to fuse her spine together where burst fractures were located, and the second involved the removal of swelling and bone fragments. After the second surgery, Alissa learned that her spinal cord is bruised and that her injury is one that has unclear outcomes.
Undeterred and convinced that she will one day walk again, Alissa has chosen to fight. She continues to have checkups with her neurosurgeon and rehabilitation specialist and also has access to her family physician for any problems related to her spinal cord injury.
Twice per week, Alissa experiences hour-long therapy sessions involving electrode pads on her muscles that stimulate her muscles to peddle the bike. With each therapy session, Alissa notices improvements and has had some change in feelings in her legs. Her normal feeling goes halfway down her thigh, and she is able to tell where her therapist is moving her legs (bringing her knee to her chest or pulling her leg in or out). At this point, she is still unable to sense the movement of her foot.
“My life has changed a lot,” she said. “There are days that life is really hard, but I know I have to do everything possible to walk again and I can't give up.”
According to Alissa, her “amazing support system” will not allow her to give up.
“My family and friends have helped me so much. They treat me the same, which is really important to me because sometimes I feel different, especially when people stare.”
Although Alissa admits to having days where she wonders, “why me,” she knows that ultimately she wouldn't change a thing.
“I do sometimes wonder, ‘why am I going through all this pain,' but then I think it could be worse – that there is someone out there that is suffering worse than I am. I know that God has a plan for me and I just need to leave it in his hands.”
Alissa is currently finishing up her Waynesburg University coursework online and plans to continue to work toward her goal of becoming a nurse. After spending four years preparing to be a bedside nurse, Alissa is now thinking about other specialized areas that would allow her to utilize her skills.
“I have always enjoyed cardiac or the heart, but after having a spinal cord injury I might do something related to that.”
Alissa walks in her braces each day, which allowed her to walk down the aisle in her brother's wedding in July. In the spirit of love, in the middle of the dance floor, her fiancé picked her up to slow dance and assured her that she was still “the same woman he asked to marry him.” Ironically, her trip down the aisle was the perfect practice run for her own wedding set for September 7, 2013.
Assisted by Jamie's Dream Team, an organization created in 2005 to lift the spirits of those suffering from, and ease the burden caused by, serious illness, injury, disability or trauma, Alissa has immersed herself in wedding planning.
“I am going to work as hard as I can to walk again, but there is only so much I can do, and the rest I have to leave to God and His plan for me,” she said.
Unwilling to give up anytime soon, Alissa said she hopes that it is God's will for her to walk again, as she dreams of being an inspiration to those around her, to show others that “nothing is impossible.”
Cami also has an upcoming wedding set for May 24, 2013, and Alissa will be by her side as a bridesmaid, another practice walk down the aisle in anticipation of her own wedding. The two know that their journey together, including their upcoming marriages to best friends who met in the Army before the women were even roommates, has created a lifelong friendship.
Since the accident, the Waynesburg University community, along with the support of family, friends and complete strangers, has come together to raise more than $35,000 for the Cami and Alissa Fund, created to relieve financial burdens for both families.