Reading the new memoir Fractured Not Broken is a practice in humility and compassion. I’ve walked by dozens of people in wheelchairs in my life and never once stopped to wonder what it felt like to be in that chair, really.
Author and quadriplegic Kelly Schaeffer changed that. She pulled me into her everyday world of living with a disability and taught me more than I’ve ever imagined about suffering, recovery and living with such physical restrictions. The heartbreaking story of this young woman’s life, completely transformed in the instant she was hit by a drunk driver, will move you to tears, and then to incredulity at her fight to make something out of her life despite her enormous limitations. The book, thankfully, is also a love story and shares the remarkable tale of a tenacious love that sought her out and found her … and wound up her forever companion in life, love, and family.
I had a chance to speak with Kelly about her book, the summer night that changed her life, and where life — and God — has taken her since.
Can you tell us what happened the night of your accident?
We were on a family vacation with my four younger brothers and my boyfriend of the time. We went to Durango, Colorado to a dude ranch. It was so much fun, I loved every single minute of it, except for the last night. That night we joined several members of the Dude Ranch staff and headed into town for the State Fair. As we were on our way, a drunk driver coming the opposite direction, after leaving a bar with his sober friend, crossed the center line going 75 mph. The first car with us swerved and missed him, the second car was side-swiped, and the third car, carrying me, my brother and my boyfriend of the time, was hit head on. The drunk driver never once stepped on his brakes. He had a blood alcohol level of .18.
A totoal of 13 people were injured. Most everyone recovered completely, including the drunk driver, but three of us did not. The driver of the car I was in died instantly at the scene. My brother suffered a traumatic brain injury and was in a coma for nine months. And then there’s myself; I’m a quadriplegic. I broke my neck at the C4 level and fractured my neck at the C4 level which bruised my spine. I’m able to use a little bit of my arm, but nothing of my legs. That night of July 10 changed the course of my future. I thought I was headed in one direction and it took me a completely opposite way. That was 16 years ago.
I can only imagine that the immediate aftermath of the accident was terrifying. How did you get through those first few weeks and the first year?
Well, those were a blur. I have a huge support system here and I felt totally uplifted by prayer. When I look back that’s the only way that I can tell you how I got through. Because, me, now, it seems so unbelievable to go through that with little tears. I think I was so naïve about how bad things really were. It was the prayers of others because I wasn’t strong enough to pray for myself at that time. Yeah, a lot of prayer and the support of my friends and family.
What was the hardest part about recovering from your accident?
I don’t think a person ever fully recovers from something like this. Every new year I’m presented with new problems.
What did you learn about yourself that surprised you during that time?
When I look back I realize that God equipped me with everything I needed at the time—prayers, courage, and the strength to get through every day.
Even before the accident I wanted to be a teacher. After the accident I wondered what I would do now. I ended up going back to school. Everybody was so discouraging about the profession I chose so I switched my major for two weeks and I hated it, so I switched back. I just had to find out for myself if I could do it. This is the only thing I’ve ever seen myself doing. But I also wondered if I should be using my story to do public speaking? Is that why I had this story? So I did that for about a year and it was alright, but I found myself missing the classroom. So I applied for a job where I had student-taught and I received that job. It was pretty brave of that principal. He was taking a big risk. I might look good on paper but when you see me and I’m in a wheelchair, there are a lot of question marks that come up. To this day, I’m so grateful to him for hiring me. That’s where I felt the most like myself and the most needed and where I had purpose. I think God placed me there for a reason and it all fit perfectly.
One of the gifts you describe about those first few days of teaching were how the children responded to you as their teacher.
That’s why I love my job. Kids see you for you. They’re not looking at what you can’t do. They show a lot of compassion. I asked them if they had any questions about my disability or what I could and couldn’t do in my wheelchair, and they just looked at me and asked things like, “What’s your favorite candy?” and “What do you do on the weekend”? They asked such normal questions. It was refreshing. And they kind of see me as “cool.” I think society needs more of that. People with disabilities can do a lot and they are cool and they’re people, too.
You also let them ride in your wheelchair.
I used to, when they made kids a little smaller! I now will chase them or race them, but no more rides anymore! That was fun.
Have you been able to forgive the man who hit your car that night?
Yes, I realize that good people can still make bad decisions, and Christ calls us to forgive, so my only hope for him is that he’s learned his lesson.
This book is also a love story. At the time of the accident, you had a boyfriend who was a rising college basketball player and you were a cheerleader. After the accident your relationship ended. But you would say that God had other plans for your life.
Well, it’s an extremely long story and part of the reason I wrote this book was to tell that story! The nutshell is that I was on ESPN being interviewed along with my boyriend of the time and this other man, Shawn, saw the interview. He was inspired by the story and wanted to let me know that. He tried to send me a letter but it never got to me. Seven years later it was still on his mind — which I attribute to the Holy Spirit — and he had work in Indiana and knew I lived there, and he took a little detour and showed up at my doorstep with this letter! He left, but with encouragement, came back and gave me this letter in person. To the stranger, he seemed like a stalker! But once you meet Shawn, all of those ideas go out of the window. He’s a very persistent man, a very compassionate man.
After that night, we started dating. It was just meant to be. I think God knew I needed to meet a guy in a grand way because I was so shattered inside from my previous relationship. I wanted love, but I didn’t want love. When Shawn came, it broke down those walls. He found me. He came and pursued me. It was reassuring. I was pretty guarded. Ironically I would rather get hit by another car than get my heart broken again. So, it was a breath of fresh air meeting Shawn.
And the love between you grew and you eventually got married! How has marriage changed your life?
It’s nice to have a companion who believes in me and loves me for who I am to share every day joy and struggles.
Three and a half hears ago we decided to adopt. We only just this summer received the news that the kids would be coming home. They’re from central Africa. We waited for so long. A boy and a girl, they’re both three. Sam and Emmy. And they just feel like they’ve always been with us.
Do you still have really dark days? How do you move through them?
Yes, some days are still difficult. Just when I think I have it figured out, I’m quickly reminded that I don’t. To move through them I read or watch television to get out of my own mind and what I’m struggling with and dive into another person’s story. It helps me forget about my difficulties. I also pray and realize that tomorrow is a new day.
In the midst of your continuing struggles, what are some of the joys in your life right now?
Our two children bring me abundant joy. When I see them smile and thrive as a part of our family, I see how good God is.
How has your relationship with God changed over the past 11 years? How does faith play in your life now?
I always had a foundation of faith and when my faith was challenged and everything was lost — the boyfriend, my sports, my health — when all of that goes away, when you’re stripped of everything, that’s when you grow closest to God. So many of the letters and phone calls to me were filled with scripture – so much I had never been exposed to before. I also followed the lead of my parents and when they dove right into their faith, I dove with them. I credit all of this — the ability to go on — to God. He’s not done with me yet, even though I’m in a wheelchair.
Why did you decide to share your story at this time?
I feel like I’m at a place where I’m content and can accept this. I couldn’t have written this book years ago, it would have ben too emotional and heart-breaking. And another thing is that my husband came into my life six years ago and completed the picture. It’s hard to trust people with your story and your words. My aunt (the co-author) did a great job mentoring me and helping me with the courage to get it out there. It was the right time.
There are 54 million Americans living with disabilities. What’s something you’d like more people to understand about people with disabilities?
My biggest wish is for people to understand that we’re people too. We have feelings and every day is such a struggle to wake up and accept this. I think more respect needs to be had for people with disabilities. And more inclusion. There are so many places I can’t get into, you just don’t think about it.
What words of hope would you want to give others who are disabled about facing their challenges?
Don’t let your disability define you. You are capable of much more than you think.