Life can truly change in an instant.
One minute you are an excited young bride celebrating your pending nuptials with your closest girlfriends, and the next you are in a hospital intensive care unit fighting for your life. Rachelle Friedman Chapman’s life changed in just this way in May 2010 after a playful push into the pool during her bachelorette party left her with a C6 spinal cord injury and paralyzed from the collar bone down. But this determined young woman has not let tragedy change her course of happiness.
Rachelle met Chris Chapman ’05, ’08 at ECU the weekend of Halloween during her freshmen year. Chris was dating someone at the time and Rachelle was interested in Chris’ cousin, but the two spent time together and became fast friends. Over the next months, and with changes in their individual relationship statuses, the two discovered they were much more than just friends. “He liked me first,” said Rachelle. “I wasn’t ready for a relationship because I thought, ‘if I get together with this guy, I’m either going to marry him or I’m going to lose my best friend.’ It was a big risk and I just wasn’t ready.” But the two found themselves spending more and more time together—even at home in Virginia Beach—and a first kiss shared on 65th Street in their hometown sealed their relationship, and was the beginning of a lifetime of love and commitment. “It’s like we were meant to be together. There were just too many coincidences,” Rachelle said. “We had to go all the way to Greenville to meet each other, but we grew up not far from one other. We used to go to the same pool, and my uncle was his dentist. I’m sure we crossed paths many times, but we never knew it.”
The two were active students while at ECU. Both avid student Pirate Club members, they never missed a football game and still don’t. Chris played intramural basketball while Rachelle would spend time on the rock climbing wall and working out at the Student Rec Center. She also enjoyed being a member of the S.C.U.B.A. Club. As a management of recreation and facilities services major, Rachelle was active in the College of Health and Human Performance—she even participated in adaptive sports, working with those in wheelchairs, and learned how to implement this type of programming into recreational environments. After graduation, she worked for Wake County Parks & Recreation and then Resources for Seniors. She taught aerobics and line dancing, and managed recreation facilities. Rachelle was also a lifeguard at a local pool. “It’s kind of ironic that this [the accident] happened to me; considering that I was a lifeguard and I had worked with people in wheelchairs. You just never know what can happen,” Rachelle said.
Recent media coverage of Rachelle’s story has, unfortunately, given some misinformation on her condition. “Many people think that because I can use an iPad I can use my hands. That’s not true. I tap a touch screen on my iPad with my knuckle. People get confused because I can press down a button on the computer, but I can’t use my hands and have no control over them.” Rachelle is considered a quadriplegic whose limbs, both arms and both legs, are impaired. She uses a manual wheelchair that she controls with pressure from her arms, using the strength of her shoulders. She also has spasticity, a condition in which muscles involuntarily contract, which might sometimes make it appear as though she can move her hands and fingers. The accident also resulted in additional impairments. She can’t cough, sneezes sound really funny, and she doesn’t sweat. It is also difficult for her body to regulate temperature and blood pressure. “I always preferred warm weather, but now I really can’t stand being cold. I spend a lot of time near a heater. My blood pressure is around 90 over 50 on a good day, but it’s been as low as 50 over 30 before—kinda scary.” Medication helps regulate her blood pressure and she takes care to wear appropriate layers to stay warm enough—especially when she attends ECU football games. Rachelle needs assistance with many routine tasks, like opening doors, preparing food, and styling her long hair. Through months of intense physical therapy and rehabilitation that she received at Pitt County Memorial Hospital, she relearned how to do many things that most of us take for granted, like feeding herself, bathing, and applying makeup—each still taxing and time consuming endeavors, but ones that Rachelle was determined to do on her own. She is diligently working to improve her independence, like being able to transfer herself from her wheelchair to the couch without assistance, and is taking the first steps to drive a vehicle again. Her determination is truly amazing, but her positive attitude is what makes her really special.
“I want to go back to work someday. Chris and I hope to start a family, too. I’m just like everyone else, except I use wheels to get around instead of my legs,” said Rachelle. Perception is important for Rachelle and she hopes that people perceive her as the strong, fun, and loyal young woman that she is. “One of the topics that I speak about is disability etiquette and appropriate reactions, especially with children. I’m not defined by my disability. I’m not the quadriplegic Rachelle; I’m Rachelle who has a disability. Some people see a person in a wheelchair in the hallway and they immediately go up against the wall to give you room to get by. Then others don’t do anything differently at all. I don’t want people to go out of their way for me, but I hope they will be considerate. It’s amazing how many people abuse handicapped accessible parking spaces! And motorcyclists are the worst! They’ll try to park in the lines that surround the parking space. Those spaces are there for a reason and I want people to respect that.” Rachelle hopes that her story will inspire others with her same disability to do what they can to improve their quality of life and remind others to be grateful for what they have. “This teenage girl sent me a letter. She told me she was a spoiled brat, but after seeing my story, she said it ‘woke her up.’ She didn’t want to be a brat anymore. It makes me feel good that I’ve had a positive influence on someone.”
Since Rachelle’s accident, her life has changed in another big way. She is no longer a bride, but a wife. On July 22, 2011, Rachelle and Chris finally shared their long-awaited vows in a dream wedding at Fearrington Village in Pittsboro, North Carolina. “It was so different than what we had originally planned. It was so much better! 1-800-REGISTRY heard about our story and offered to pay for our wedding and honeymoon. Everything was so perfect and so ‘us.’ I wanted it to be really Southern with a barn. I just happened to find Fearrington Village online and knew it would be perfect. The ceremony was outside and the reception was in the barn. Chris’ uncle married us. We even entered our reception to ‘Purple Haze’ because of ECU!” The couple shared a first dance to Rascal Flatts’ “Won’t Let Go,” and guests enjoyed Southern fare favorites like fried okra, macaroni and cheese, steak, and seafood. “I surprised Chris with an ECU pirate ship groom’s cake. It was awesome,” recalled Rachelle. “I wouldn’t change anything about that day.” After a night in Las Vegas where they saw The Lion King onstage, the couple enjoyed a romantic honeymoon at a resort in Fiji.
Rachelle has never revealed the name of the bridesmaid that pushed her, and says she never will. “People don’t care about how it can mess your life up,” she said. “The media kept pressuring me to say who it was, but I wouldn’t. It was an accident and could have happened to anyone. Why would I want to make it even worse for my friend who already suffers from this? Producers of Oprah wanted me to be on a show about forgiveness with my friend. I love Oprah! Well, I’m not sure how I feel now, but I did love Oprah. I didn’t do the show. I couldn’t subject my friend to millions of people knowing who she was. Without even knowing her identity, so many have said horrible things about her—I mean horrible. And I’m not going to make it worse for her.” Rachelle is committed to protecting her friend, who was still part of her wedding. But she has a few words of wisdom to share with others: “None of us is invincible. I know it’s so cliché, but it can be you. Don’t take the small things for granted because you could lose them.” Good advice for us all to remember.