Well, hello there! So, you wanna know more about me, huh? Let’s see, where does one even start… I reckon the answer to that question would obviously be “the beginning.” Makes sense, I suppose.
I am Katy Blake, your not-so-average 27 year old; born, raised, and currently living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. On a sunny Sunday – June 13, 2010, to be exact – while on an annual canoe trip with a large group of friends on Little Black Creek in Hattiesburg, MS, a friend and I began horse-playing during a stop on the sandbar. Harmless horseplay suddenly turned tragic when my friend spit on me and because I was so grossed out, I instinctively made the decision to start running to the water to jump in and wash off. I saw several of my friends neck deep in the creek and quickly made the assumption they were in the deep end; this area of the creek is a popular spot because the bottom had a sudden drop-off where it went from about 2 or 3 feet deep to 8 to 10 feet (and even deeper the further out from the sandbar you go). In hindsight, however, I learn that my friends were kicked back and propped up on their elbows, giving the impression they were in deep waters. You know what they about people who assume, huh?
As soon as I leapt, it was almost as if my dive were in slow motion and I vividly remember the moment I realized in mid-air that it was too shallow – but it was too late and there was nothing I could do. I hit bottom head-first with my arms extended out in front of me in, probably the 958th dive of my life (I grew up swimming literally every summer since I was a child and was no stranger to diving, even in the more shallow end- like 3-4ft. deep- although I knew better). However, all it takes is one wrong jump. Like I always say, “it was a great dive, but a terrible spot.”
After hitting bottom, I mentally remained conscious while my body instantly went physically numb and lifeless. I lay face down in the water for what seemed like an eternity before the same friend who spit on me was the same one to pull me out. Actually, he thought we were still playing around until I immediately told them that something was wrong and to get me to the sandbar.
Although my exterior was calm and collected, even though it looked like I was gasping for air after ingesting so much creek water, on the inside I was panicking and thinking, “I cannot be paralyzed- I cannot handle this. What will my family do? What will my mom say? She’s gonna be so mad at me! How can I survive this? What is going to happen?” In a brief moment of panic and denial, despite having no feeling or movement below my neck, I tried to convince my friends (or maybe more myself) that it was just a pinched nerve and to “put me back in the canoe and keep on going, I’ll walk it off.” Good thing nobody ever really took me seriously.
I was extremely fortunate that there were park rangers stationed along the creek that saw what happened; additionally, I was lucid enough to relay all the needed information/phone numbers so my friends could call my mom and I could get prepared to be airlifted to the emergency room. After a helicopter transported me to Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, it was determined that I fractured my C-5 vertebrae, small pieces in the very front breaking off and shards of bone going in and “bruising” my spinal cord, leaving me paralyzed from allegedly biceps on down (a “typical C5″). But like I said, I’m not your typical girl.
All that being said, I am now an incomplete quadriplegic. Although doctors originally thought I would not move past my shoulders, I made my decision in that very moment that I was not going to listen to doctor’s suggestion about my prognosis and I am still determined to exceed every expectation in regards to my recovery. This has been my challenge since then and although I have my days of feeling defeated, (after all, we’re only human) it will be my challenge every day for the rest of my life. And while at first my only focus was about walking again, I’ve learned since then that you must crawl before you can walk and there are many other things more important that I want back before regaining the ability to walk. Really, when you learn all the crazy, weird, and intimate details that spinal cord injuries can include, you eventually also learn that walking is overrated.
While in the hospital, I encountered many setbacks: the first almost two months were spent in ICU on a ventilator with pneumonia in my left lung; I had both chest tubes and a feeding tube; developed a stage 3 pressure sore on my tailbone (prolonging my hospital stay to nearly 3 months before a skin flap was done); plus various respiratory problems such as a mucous plug in my trachea on my first weekend out of ICU that resulted in a Code Blue, and thus landing me back in ICU and back on the ventilator for 2-3 more weeks.
Shortly after all that craziness, while in ICU for the second time, I started to get extremely sick with nausea and fever, becoming extremely bloated and never wanted to eat. It felt like forever before my ICU nurse (who was, ironically, a childhood friend of mine from back home) discovered that my feeding tube was leaking, which could have been very serious if it had gotten into my internal organs. After a CT scan confirmed the sudden discovery, I was immediately led to an emergency surgery to correct the leaking tube and was fortunate to find there was no serious damage done. I was then the proud owner of 11 staples above my belly button, that, quite unfortunately, slightly split back open after surgery, and feeling like I had been hit by a Mack truck for the next several weeks.
It was a constant one step forward, two steps back (thanks a lot, Paula Abdul). Despite the struggles, I never let it get me down or stop me from working to regain any possible movement, sensation, or function that I could on my own time. I eagerly participated in as much physical therapy and occupational therapy as possible and never stop moving as much as I could, hoping and happy to regain anything past my biceps. At first, all I could do was a “chicken wing” type movement – so I chicken-danced the days away in ICU until I was slowly but surely starting to move more of my arms and wrists (still no hand/finger function to this day). Progress is progress, no matter how small.
The hardest part of my recovery has not been the physical therapy itself, but the financial means to get it. I had private insurance all my life until 10 months prior to my accident. After my injury, I received Mississippi Medicaid. After three months spent in the hospital, it was time to begin rehab. Although I really wanted to attend the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, GA, a world renowned rehab facility for spinal cord injuries, Mississippi Medicaid would not pay for me to do so. I was sent to Mississippi Methodist Rehab Hospital in Jackson, MS. Medicaid was only willing to pay for two weeks of therapy for what was called “The Care-Giver Program.” The focus of these two weeks were to teach my mother, my primary caregiver, on how to take care of me. Gratefully, Mississippi Vocational Rehab paid for another two weeks, extending my stay for a full month. In 30 days, I was expected to learn how to cope with a lifetime of disability. By the time I came home, nearly 4 months after my injury, I could just barely feed myself.
After returning home alone with my retired mother to the Gulf Coast, nearly 4 hours away from the only spinal cord injury facility in Mississippi, we were essentially left on our own. And let me tell you, after returning home from such a life-changing event, you don’t even know where to start, how to begin, and what should and shouldn’t be done. Sadly, you learn the hard way that not everyone in the “business” has your best interest at heart. Although I began outpatient therapy at my local hospital, they lacked the equipment and therapists to properly treat somebody with a spinal cord injury. I didn’t know what to do with me and it seemed like nobody else did either.
When I tried to go through government and state agencies to get financial assistance for additional specialized rehab, I was repeatedly denied. At one point, I was even denied Mississippi Medicaid because they considered donations as part of my income and the appeal process took almost three months, which stopped all outpatient therapy and left me paying full price for all my prescriptions, doctor’s appointments, etc. I also had a nightmare with my first power wheelchair that I sat in for the first 2 years which never did fit properly and because of that I’ve developed severe scoliosis, which continues to hinder my goal to be independent as well as poses health risks and other unnecessary complications that could have easily been avoided. Unfortunately, at that time, we didn’t know any better (seriously, there should be a manual for all this – maybe I’ll write one).
Instead of moving forward, I was continually being pushed back; feeling constantly frustrated by my lack of resources, which meant lack of progress. Finally, I could no longer sit back and watch as life passed before my eyes but yet I remained the same (or digressed, actually). I knew I had to get back to a specialized SCI inpatient rehab one way or another, no matter what it took. I had enough.
In April 2011, after 10 months of setbacks, struggles, denials, and disappointments, I began Help Katy Back to Rehab on Facebook. In today’s society, social media can change and impact lives like never before seen. We witness it almost daily through all different forms of media- you never know what in this world can go viral… I always joke that if a cat playing keyboard could go viral then maybe my story could, too. So, I thought if enough people, or perhaps just the right person, somehow heard about my plight, saw my persistence and determination, that they could possibly help; and it became bigger than I ever imagined. That was when my new life really began and my new job, raising funds for rehab, specifically the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia, blossomed.
I’ll never forget one of the first things my mother told me after the injury was that who I am, the real Katy, is not about my physical capability. Despite being paralyzed, I still had my own voice and that just because I sit all day doesn’t mean I can’t still stand up for myself. Social media enabled me to become my own self advocate, an entrepreneur, an educator, a motivator, an artist, and a writer. Since that time, with the help of family, friends, and a wonderful community, I have had multiple local benefits, two major T-shirt fundraisers (selling over 2100 shirts nationwide), and was the recipient of a life-changing benefit called the Charity Bowl by the Sigma Nu chapter at Ole Miss College in March 2012.
Additionally, a failed attempt of a major bladder surgery left me depressed and somehow led me to pick up a paintbrush in early 2012. Not only has painting brought joy into my life as a form of expression, but it became an amazing type of physical and occupational therapy as well as being mentally and emotionally therapeutic. Furthermore, painting has helped my progress by teaching me patience, focus, strength, and coordination, but despite how poorly I thought they were (we’re all own our worst critics, I know), people wanted to buy them! In the last two years that I’ve taught myself to paint, not only have I surprised myself by my newly discovered talent, but it became a great indicator of the progress I was making over time and amazingly enough, provided me another opportunity to raise money for rehab. I’ve been so lucky to have participated in many local art festivals and also sale my art online -which has grown from just canvases to adding prints, notecards, and calendars. It’s not often I saw I’m proud of myself, but I will say I’m proud of myself for not sitting back and waiting for a hand-out; instead, I have worked my butt off to get to where I am today.
What an amazing journey it has been since creating this website after Help Katy Back to Rehab became a hit on Facebook. With over 8,000 followers, it has put happiness and hope back into my life and for society in general. I have met the nicest, most caring people who are inspired by me as much as I’m inspired by them. I cannot imagine my life now without some of the special people in it that I would have never known had it not been for my accident. And by the grace of God, selfless donations, multiple benefits and fundraisers, the Ole Miss Charity Bowl, the support of both my local community and online following, and my own hard work in my painting and promoting, I have been SO lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to Shepherd two separate times (total of 3 months), spend two weeks in California at an amazing facility called Project Walk, and the means to purchase specialized equipment such as a standing frame and FES bike.
This blog is documentation on my journey of recovery; a way for me to vent my fears and frustrations; share my joyous occasions and milestones; educate and raise awareness about spinal cord injuries; inspire myself and others to live life to the fullest and to never give up; and sale my artwork to raise my own money so I’m able to continue with more rehab, purchase equipments, and make modifications to enable me to life my live to the best of my ability. Will I ever walk again? Who knows. But I’m not going to let life pass me by waiting on a miracle that may never come (and I’m ok with that); I fully intend to have an independent, happy and fulfilled life, even without hand function, chair or no chair. Our lives are not defined or determined by our physical capacity.
My injury is not a tragedy, it was a blessing in disguise. Though I may have lost some movement and function, I can still think independently with my mind and love with my all my heart- things that truly matter in life. So much good has come from my accident that I do not live in remorse or bitterness. I live a new kind of normal but I’m still the same person I always was – perhaps a little wiser and a little more cautious. My spiritual faith has never been stronger. Miracles happen every day but you have to believe, and you have to work hard. My faith in myself and my strength has been tested time and time again as I’ve had to overcome so many obstacles and struggle with many setbacks in the last 4 years. This blog is my journal of re-discovering myself and learning to live this new life in many different aspects- physically, mentally, and emotionally. We all have our bad days, but no matter how bad it gets, never, ever, ever give up. And if I have inspired or educated just one single person from putting it all out there like I do, then this blog is worth it. My injury does not define me, but it has given my life more of a purpose now than I ever had in my first 23 years of life.
Thanks for coming to my page and taking the time to read this and hopefully peruse through some of my blogs and artwork (maybe even buy a thing or two). I would not be where I am today if it were not for the love and support I get from my family, friends, local community, and my online support. Despite my deepest hardships, I am truly blessed.