The Show Must Go On
Anne Nelson learns to heal and thrive after sustaining a spinal cord injury through her love of dance and performing.
I hope that anyone reading this sees that putting your mind to something is so powerful and can allow you to accomplish things you never thought were possible.
In May 2016, Anne Nelson, now 23, of Madison, Alabama, had just finished her freshman year at Auburn University pursuing a Bachelor of Science in nursing with a minor in dance. She was happy to be home for the summer to spend time with family and friends.
Then, on June 23, she experienced the unimaginable. While sitting in the backseat of the car with her seatbelt on, she was in a car crash. The seatbelt malfunctioned. Anne was launched forward, resulting in an incomplete T-11 and T-12 spinal cord injury (SCI) and a broken right arm.
First responders rushed Anne to Huntsville Hospital, where her arm was stabilized, and she was admitted to the Neuro Intensive Care Unit for exploratory surgery on her abdomen and a spinal fusion. A few days later on July 3, Anne transferred to Shepherd Center.
“I remember the day after I arrived, the annual AJC Peachtree Road Race was happening outside,” Anne recalls. “We got up early to watch and cheer, and I remember thinking how empowering it was to see all the athletes in wheelchairs participating in the race.”
That positive outlook carried Anne through her rehabilitation at Shepherd. Lisette Tiller, PT, DPT, CLWT, a physical therapist at Shepherd Center, worked with Anne in Shepherd Step, a program that aims to help individuals with motor incomplete SCIs regain the highest possible functional level of walking.
“She was a fighter,” Tiller says. “Her ability to be patient with herself and focus on accomplishing as much as possible one day at a time was an inspiration.”
Anne spent about 10 weeks at Shepherd Center which included six weeks in inpatient and about four weeks in the Spinal Cord Injury Day Program. She fondly remembers the outings and recreational therapy she participated in with her fellow patients.
“I really appreciated the practical skills we were taught during outings like how to ride public transportation, push a shopping cart at Target or travel on an airplane,” Anne says. “I was also able to do art therapy. Doing any type of creative activity has always brought me joy, so being able to get back into that at Shepherd was really therapeutic for me.”
Anne’s love of creative expression helped fuel her determination to continue one of her other passions – dance.
“I’ve been dancing now for about 14 years,” Anne says. “After my injury, I thought that my dance life may be over. Then, I met a member of the Shepherd Center wheelchair basketball team, Laurel Lawson, who introduced me to a physically integrated dance company called Full Radius Dance in Atlanta. That’s when I saw dancing in a wheelchair was possible and I might as well try it!”
Anne returned home to Madison, Alabama, in September 2016, determined to keep up her rehabilitation therapy and continue pursuing dance. After taking just one semester off of school, she returned to Auburn in January 2017.
“I met with my dance professor and told her I wanted to complete my minor in dance regardless of my injury,” Anne says. “Even though she had never worked with a dancer in a wheelchair before, and I had never danced in a wheelchair, we were both excited to take on the challenge.”
By the middle of Anne’s first semester back post-injury, her dance teacher asked her to come up with her own choreography to teach the class. The piece was a big hit – so much so that they decided to present it at the National Dance Education Organization Conference, an annual event dedicated to advancing dance education centered in the arts.
“We were so proud of what we had created,” Anne explains. “The performance was successful, and I even ended up creating a solo version of it titled ‘Unpaved.’ I got to perform that piece for Auburn’s 2018 annual dance concert.”
Anne proudly claims the title of the first person at Auburn University to dance in a wheelchair. The next challenge she is taking on is a form of dance called aerial silks where a dancer performs aerial acrobatics while suspended in the air using silk fabric.
“It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she says. “I love using the challenge as part of my physical therapy right now.”
In addition to continuing to try new types of dance and physical therapy, Anne completed her minor in dance in May 2018, and she plans to complete her nursing degree on schedule in May 2021. But she does not want to focus too much on the future.
“My biggest takeaway from my injury is to take everything in life one day at a time,” Anne reflects. “A lot of people get caught up in thinking about the fact that they are paralyzed and that this will prevent them from living life to the fullest. Or they are impatient with the healing process and want to give up. I promise that if you get up and try to accomplish something each day, you will get closer to where you want to be tomorrow.”
Anne hopes that her story can help inspire and motivate people whether they have sustained an SCI or not.
“I think of what has happened to me and how I live my life as living out a story that others can see and apply to their own situations,” Anne says. “I hope that anyone reading this sees that putting your mind to something is so powerful and can allow you to accomplish things you never thought were possible.”
By Damjana Alverson
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 743 inpatients, 277 day program patients and more than 7,161 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.