Back to School after being paralyzed | Amber Collie

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on April 25, 2019 # Health, Mobility

My son, Zack Collie was only 15- years- old when injured. He was a freshman at a local High school in Orange County, California. Since his injury took place Memorial Day (very end of May) that left only about two weeks until school was out. I remember Zack had two scheduled trips planned. While in the hospital he asked, “mom I know I won’t make the trip next week but I’ll be ok for the second one right?” Zack had a plane ticket to New Mexico to see his best friend that summer. It was a hard moment because it showed me Zack did not fully understand the extent of his injury. As his mom, navigating the emotional shock felt just as hard as the physical shock. Most things I answered vaguely part because I didn't actually know the answers myself and also because it was too painful to hear the answers.

Having summer hit at that time I suppose worked in Zack’s favor because he was in the hospital the whole time, not the way to spend a summer but also not miss school. It was mid-August when he was released, the week of his 16th birthday to be exact. We adjusted the best we could at home for the next couple weeks and then school was about to start. This was now his sophomore year. Physical Therapy was our main focus at this time, but I also knew he couldn't get behind in school. It was important to me that Zack stay current and hopefully graduate with his class of peers, some of these kids he’d known since elementary school. We chose to have a teacher come to the house for his sophomore year, he was in physical therapy four days a week for three hours a day in the beginning. By the summer of junior year, we felt that Zack needed the social aspect of his life again. Friends had become a major problem. 16-year-old boys, for the most part, are very busy, living their own lives, out of sight out of mind was taking place.

Zack being an extremely social person, for the first time I was seeing him quiet and down. We changed it up and put an individual educational plan (IEP) together. He would do half of the schoolwork at home and half on campus. This seemed to help a little, but going back to school as a quadriplegic after being an able-bodied person was difficult. Maybe more for me than Zack. He was still Zack and he just wanted his friends to treat him like they did before the injury. He had a group of boys who would pick him up, literally lift him to the passenger seat, wheelchair in the trunk and off they'd go, but this was far and few between because of the effort it took. Grateful for the kids that did come around and we realized it was also hard for them as well.

Senior year he only had a few classes to complete to graduate. Zack was never much into school so college was not something we thought he'd do other than possibly Junior College. Halfway through his Senior year though we realized Zack had to go to college or have a larger goal after graduation. That time is hard for most kids, let alone add in this injury. We had been hearing of an organization called Swim With Mike for the last couple years. Friends at our therapy had told Zack about this program that paid for injured athletes to go to college. At that time, we were on survival mode and he was only a high school sophomore, so it seemed far away. Now here we were senior year with graduation around the corner. There was a specific moment for me. That I think actually changed the path Zack was on. My first thought was where is the closest four-year university. I literally looked it up and called the school right then. I asked if they had a disabled department of any sorts. To my surprise, they said yes and transferred me. A man named Paul Miller picked up the phone. I explained our situation and asked him “Can a quadriplegic go to college”? This question seems strange now but at that time we were still figuring out everything. Paul’s answer hit me almost physically, “Of course a quadriplegic can go to college,” his voice so confident. This moment changed Zack’s course, I know sounds dramatic but up until then I just didn't think it was possible. I heard what Paul said and the lightbulb moment happened. Zack was going to college. We had a lot to do, he was not on the college path so there were credits to make up, we went into full gear and made that happen. He only applied to the one college so thankfully Zack did get in. We also applied to Swim With Mike and received a scholarship another huge reason Zack was going since we had no money to send him.

What an amazing program! We also did something really cool at Zack’s graduation from High School. Being a C-4 incomplete injury Zack can stand with help and when in a special walker, with two physical therapists Zack “walked” to get his diploma. (you can see his video on YouTube under Zack Collie) It was a proud moment.

The first day of college I think I was more or at least just as nervous as Zack. He is my oldest child so this was new territory all the way around, plus figuring out details, for instance, how is Zack going to write notes, hold a textbook, open doors, eat lunch? This is where the Disabled Student Center on campus came to the rescue. Slowly but surely helping us figure each of these things out. After finishing his freshman year of college, summer hit, and another idea popped up! Could Zack live on campus? I liked the idea of Zack experiencing any form of independence. Through another series of events, very helpful staff and generosity of others this came about his second year! We started with a full-time caregiver with him 24/7 who provided assistance outside of classroom time, but we were able to go down to mornings and evenings by the second semester. Zack had three different roommates throughout his time, each one had its lessons both good and bad. I was nervous but happy to know he was figuring life out.

We were only able to afford a year of on-campus living but it was good, and we had no regrets. He was back home his third year. It took five years total to complete his bachelor’s degree. Going through the ups and downs of choosing a career and testing out options. Slow but steady, He did it! Zack graduated from college! Another proud moment for mama. He is now in Grad School and does everything mostly on his own when it comes to school work.

I hope this encourages anyone who is paralyzed that like us thought no way, but there is a way!

Until Next time.

Amber Collie (Proud Mama Bear)