(This story was first published in the June 27, 2013 edition of the Vermont Standard.)
By Katy Savage,
BRIDGEWATER — Paula McNeill’s family and friends lifted her down from her wheelchair to her bicycle, and adjusted her legs to fit in her arm powered bicycle.
The accident that left her paralyzed seemed like a lifetime ago.
“You really think about life and what it’s all about, what’s really important to you,” said McNeill with a smile on her face.
McNeill was one of about 20 disabled bike riders at the Long Trail Brewery last weekend. Some were blind, some paralyzed and some were missing limbs. There were 375 riders total.
To McNeill, it was important to stay active after her accident. In her outdoorsy family, she had no option. The long-time employee of Killington Ski Resort was an athlete before she got hurt.
“She was the type of person who would wake up in the morning and climb a mountain with her two dogs before most people were out of bed prior to her accident,” her best friend since middle school, Erin Moloney said.
McNeill was an avid skier and a “fish in the water ,” said Moloney. She kayaked and hiked in the summers and snowmobiled in the winters. Her family wasn’t one to sit around on weekends.
McNeill went skiing for half the day in January three years ago and spent the rest of the day snowmobiling with her husband in Chittenden. It was a typical winter day for the McNeills.
Then, in a blink of an eye, everything changed.
McNeill was following her husband down a snow-covered dirt road when the snowmobile started to skid.
McNeill’s front ski skidded toward the bank. She knew she was going to tip. McNeill went flying in the air , curling herself in a ball to protect her head. She landed in a culvert on a pile of rocks.
Paul didn’t know what had happened until he looked back and didn’t see his wife behind him. He tracked back to find McNeill lying in the snow.
I can’t feel my legs, McNeill thought to herself.
They both knew something was wrong.
With no cell phone service and nobody else around, Paul had no choice but to leave his wife in the snow while he drove his snowmobile 1.5 miles down the road to call for help.
One X-ray was all the doctors needed to tell McNeill her spinal cord was severed. Her life was changed forever.
She’s been paralyzed from the waist down since. McNeill spent three weeks in a hospital and five weeks in rehab. Her husband, a carpenter , didn’t wait a minute to install an elevator in their house and lower their sink and stove.
“It felt so strange,” McNeill said. “It’s like when you get work done in your mouth. You can feel it with your fingers but you can’t feel your face. It’s really strange touching your legs but not feeling them.” McNeill was driving independently within six months using hand controls in her minivan. The following winter, the former expert ski racer was on the mountain again, on a monoski.
“She was on the easiest trail and she fell 40 times down one run,” Paul said. McNeill will never be able to ski by herself again and she’ll never be the skier she once was, but she doesn’t let that stop her.
McNeill is less independent and she has to do everything at a slower pace, but she still does everything she did before her accident.
She swims a half-mile three times a week in the Pico pool, tying her legs together and dragging her body along in the water , doing the crawl with just her arms.
She was never scared after her accident, only that much more determined to show everyone what she could do.
“It’s just amazing,” her brother , John Hurley said. “She doesn’t say ‘What can’t I do,’ she says, ‘What can I do?’” Instead of wallowing, McNeill spent her days focusing on what she could.
“To me, in my head, (wallowing) doesn’t get you anywhere,” McNeill said. She plans to snowmobile again this winter . Her friends expected nothing less.
“I know how strong she is,” Moloney said. “She’s always been a thrill seeker and daredevil and that’s what keeps her spirit alive.” McNeill hopes to bike 50 miles by the end of the summer and wants to scuba dive.
“You go through your day and you have our ups and downs and then you think of her,” said her friend Suzanne Ellis Leonard. “She just gets through anything. Everything she wants to do, she does.”
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