Don’t DIS me…see my Ability! By Laurie Zappulla

“My name is Laurie Zappulla and here is my pitch!”  That is the opening line for all TEDx speakers and I voiced my pitch this past March. In 1979, a week before my freshman year of college, I jumped into a swimming pool and broke my neck.  At that moment, I didn’t have to wonder if I was paralyzed. I was consumed by my stark new reality. The collision with the pool bottom, the trauma to the spine and spinal cord, the exact time that all this is happening, technically, my body ceased.

But before I learned details of my physical fate, I already knew something was terribly wrong. My head was pounding and my neck was excruciatingly heavy. At that moment I was certain I was going to die.  My only hope was this was a nightmare and I just needed to wake up. “This really can’t be happening, not now, I thought.” I tried to fix it. I attempted to put my feet on the bottom of the pool; convinced they must be touching it. However, I just couldn’t tell.  It was in that moment I realized my feet were unable to move–to get me the heck out of the horrifying situation. My body was in a strange place, an unknown. Even if I explain it a thousand times, I would fail at making anyone understand it fully. Essentially, everything inside my body was internally humming; tuning fork-like tremors. Yet, it was almost like my own physical self had simply “left the building.”

I would soon learn that my spinal cord was damaged badly and I had become instantly paralyzed.  I became what is known as a “C6 incomplete quadriplegic.” In an incomplete injury, the spinal cord is not severed or completely impaired.  Therefore, I still had hope of signals or neurons getting a connection.

Immediately after the accident, the doctors told my mother to go home and hire a contractor or a realtor because our home in Brooklyn at the time had so many stairs.  Well, thankfully the doctors were wrong. I was at Rusk Institute rehab for almost one year and outpatient therapy for an additional year. Miraculously, one hundred days post injury I walked!

It is not to say, however, that my life was back to its original place and despite the success of walking, I remain functionally disabled. I recall feeling so accomplished in rehab but realizing once outside, I did not “fit” into society anymore. In the hospital world, I was “the successful one.” I remember my psychologist saying, “Here, in the hospital world, you did great.” But now, I was re-entering the real world, where I am not the star, I am not successful. I am at the other end of the spectrum, I am now a disabled person forever and will enter a whole new world, the “handicapped” world.

The following year, I attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, F.I.T., and graduated with a B.S. in Marketing Management.  My years at F.I.T. were both frightening and super exciting for me. I had to learn how to “fit” in again, how to readjust to a “normal” schedule, care for myself independent of my family, friends, and therapists.  I had no choice as soon as I stepped out, into my life at college in New York. I put myself right in the big city and dared myself every day into a new life. I had difficulties beyond comprehension at times. I was meeting new people every day.

People were curious and wanted to know why someone so young walked with a cane. It seemed like I had a sign on my forehead that said, “Ask me,” and it should have included, “At your own risk.” It was funny that the average person was rare at F.I.T. Most kids were a little out there on the edge in one way or another. Sexually, artistically, these kids were definitely more than just fashion junkies. Punk rock was hot, boys had painted fingernails, hair was high and molded. And then there was me. I guess I may have thought I stuck out because I used a cane. But upon reflection, when I think about it, I fit right in. I was different, but so was everyone. I loved being with them, I felt normal in that crowd.

I am truly grateful and thankful, for the rest of the story continues on with me marrying my husband, having my son, and going on to live a full life.  Blessed with life events that I once never dreamed of happening.

This September will be forty years since that horrible day; forty years of pain, joy and a lot of re-inventing. It is very difficult to be different and like yourself for it.  This is an excerpt from my memoir, “You’re Going to Walk”, the story of my Spinal Cord Injury and how I have overcome the odds. I am proud to share my experience, including the physical and emotional pain that is inevitable from such a life-changing incident.  Currently, the book is included in NYU’s syllabus for the 2019 Master Psychology Program’s Trauma course and Orlando’s Rollins College as part of their Health Communications course. I have spoken with book clubs, hospitals, and women’s groups because it has been inspiring to others who may have been given a similar prognosis of “you will never walk again.”  There is also a carry over to people challenged with depression, and others enduring life-changing illnesses.

Most of all, I am determined to bring awareness to the public about not only the scars and hurts a “disabled” person lives with, but the abilities people have if you change your perspective.  Let’s drop the “DIS” and SEE ABILITY!


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