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Paralyzed bride-to-be determined to be self-reliant, get married

By Phil Gast, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rachelle Friedman was paralyzed after injury at bachelorette party
  • She has maintained a close friendship with best friend
  • She and Chris Chapman put off wedding while she recovers
  • They are dealing with expensive medical bills

(CNN) -- Don't expect Rachelle Friedman to have a pity party for Thanksgiving Day just because it will be her first in a wheelchair.

Paralyzed from the chest down after she was playfully pushed by her best friend into the pool at her bachelorette party, Friedman is preparing to host family at her home.

"We all have something to be thankful for," said Friedman, 25, of Knightdale, North Carolina, just east of Raleigh. "I am thankful I didn't suffer a brain injury."

It has been six months since the East Carolina University graduate, her fiance and family learned that she would never again be able to walk.

Friedman has maintained two goals during these months of medical treatment and grueling outpatient therapy: Getting married and becoming independent.

Fiance Chris Chapman, 28, can't wait for the delayed wedding day to arrive, once complicated insurance issues are resolved.

"It will be phenomenal," he said. "She has a whole world of friends she never knew."

Last spring was a joyful time for Friedman and Chapman, a middle school science teacher. The pair, both from Virginia Beach, Virginia, were to wed June 27.

In late May, Friedman, who was a program coordinator for a senior citizens center, traveled to Virginia Beach for her bachelorette party.

Bridesmaids enjoyed a cookout and a limousine ride to the entertainment strip. "We had a really good time," Friedman said.

Afterward, the group went to her best friend's home, where they started playing around near the pool.

"It was just spontaneous horseplay," said Friedman, a former dance and aerobics dancer. "She pushed me and I landed wrong."

The young woman's head struck the bottom of the pool, which had a few feet of water in it.

"I was pretty conscious through all of it," Friedman said. "I heard my neck crack and my body went stiff. I couldn't move anything."

She floated to the surface, where she was helped by her best friend who, like Friedman, is a lifeguard. "I knew I broke something," Friedman said. "I knew I was paralyzed."

Friedman recalls asking an EMT whether she had seen someone walk after such an accident. The emergency worker replied knowing of one person in 30 years on the job.

"I told her I was going to be the second," Friedman said.

Friedman suffered a C6 spinal cord injury and paralysis from the chest down. She can use her arms and wrists, but not her hands. She uses her thumbs to type on a keyboard. "I'm still dealing with a lot of nerve pain" in her hands and torso, she says, for which she takes medications.

Her best friend has had to deal with guilt, Friedman said. "We're in a tough place together."

"We're there for each other. It could easily have been the other way around."

Weeks of hospital treatment ensued last summer.

"Soon after I got out of the in-patient treatment I got involved in sports," said Friedman, who plays wheelchair "quad rugby" for the Raleigh Sidewinders.

For now, Friedman is getting outpatient therapy. She's learning to deal with the pain and is increasing her upper-body strength and the ability to "transfer" herself into bed or a car. Her mother and brother assist her during the week while Chapman is at work.

The recreation management major recently spoke at an adaptive sports and wellness day, where people with disabilities were exposed to sports like kayaking, basketball and rugby.

"I'm doing extremely well for my [injury] level," Friedman said.

The couple still goes occasionally to movies or dinner.

"It [just] takes longer, to get medications and equipment together," Chapman said.

The accident has introduced them to new friends and brought their families closer together. And it's introduced them to a caring online world.

A page on a website called CaringBridge.org features photos of Friedman and has a guestbook full of best-wish entries.

"Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you as by the attitude u bring to life, not so much by what happens to u as by the way your mind looks at what happens!," one post on Saturday read. "u r such a brave & strong girl."

The website also requests donations to help cover extensive medical costs. Friedman had some insurance coverage from where she worked. She is on long-term disability and also has a COBRA policy, Chapman said. But it's not enough.

Friedman put off the wedding until she and Chapman can figure out medical coverage. If they marry now, she may not qualify for Medicaid, they said.

Chapman says they are still tallying medical expenses, which included between $1,200 and $1,600 a day for a hospital room during her stay over the summer.

"I really want to work," said Friedman. She hopes to work for the agency that operated the senior citizens center where she used to work. She also expects to be driving in about six months.

At times frustrated over what she cannot do, Friedman said she thinks about what she can. She and Chapman are determined that she become as independent as possible.

"The hopes of her walking are almost impossible to imagine at this point," Chapman said, although the couple talk of possible medical advancements from stem cell research.

Chapman and Friedman say they remain deeply committed to each other.

"We were meant to be," said Friedman, who hopes they can marry next summer.

Because of access issues, the couple may have to pick a different wedding venue in Virginia Beach, one that has room for the wheelchairs used by friends.

The past few months have tested the couple's mettle.

"We're definitely built to last," Chapman said. "She was and is my best friend. I cannot wait to marry her."