Meet Connie Neal, supervisor at the Internal Revenue Service

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Connie Neal and her good friend, Michelle Hori Hunt (left)

Our newest installment in “Back to Work”—a series to help people with spinal cord injuries re-enter the workforce

“Work helps you satisfy the need to feel valued and will fight the feelings of inadequacy and depression that may arise. Decide what you can do and what you want to do and then figure out how to accomplish it. You can contribute an amazing amount”~ Connie Neal

Connie Neal is a front-line supervisor at the Internal Revenue Service. In her job, she supervises 15 employees and travels for work.

Connie Neal with daughter Kaitlinn and son Carson

In June 2004, Connie Neal, then 35, was on a date at the Jericho sand dunes in northern Utah, enjoying the sun and having fun on an ATV. Seconds later, tumbling end over end on the ATV three times, she found herself in the sand at the bottom of an 18-foot dune, paralyzed from the waist down (level: T-12/L-1).

Connie, a single mother of two (Kaitlinn and Carson, then 10 and 8 years old, respectively) had broken 10 ribs, fractured 11 vertebrae from C4 to L1, severed her spinal cord at the lowest break (L1), and for a time, was in a coma.

The doctor told her mother and father, Bill and Karen Frost, that she would never walk again and that she would be totally dependent on them for the rest of her life.

Given this information, Connie and her family made difficult choices. Connie sold her home and her parents had their home remodeled for accessibility so that Connie and her children could move in.

Getting back to work and back into life.

Despite her doctor’s dire warnings, Connie was back to work in only three and a half months. She worked part-time for the first few months while she regained her stamina and returned to full-time status within six months of the accident.

The IRS had kept Connie’s job waiting for her – double-encumbering the position (paying her and her temporary replacement for the same position) until she could return full-time.

Other physical accommodations included moving her parking spot closer, installing accessibility buttons on doors and moving her office from the second floor to the first floor for easier evacuation in the case of an emergency.

“My manager, Vicky Cook, was so amazing during those first four months back at work. She became my closest friend, would listen to my fears, grieve with me over my loss, strengthen my resolve, help me believe in myself and my abilities, and ultimately encouraged my career direction towards management,” Connie says. “She was crucial to my mobility and independence in the beginning, retrieving my chair from the back of my Jeep and even assisting me in transferring from my chair to the toilet (not a glamorous job, but a much appreciated).”

Connie Neal and extended family enjoy Disneyland

At the year mark, Connie made the difficult decision to forego her physical therapy, a three-time-a-week undertaking that involved a 90-minute drive one-way and an out-of-pocket cost the equivalent of a $1300 monthly mortgage payment.

Instead, the priority for her and her children had become their independence as a family and their own home. “My motivation was definitely the desire to raise my children on my own,” says Connie. “They were only 8-1/2 and 10 years old at the time. I was so grateful to my parents for their love and support in getting us through a living nightmare, but I could see that my kids were overwhelmed with so many people parenting, and I wanted to be the one they came to for comfort or help.”

Newly injured? Connie offers this advice:

Get a peer mentor right away.

“There wasn’t really a mentor program in place when I was hurt, but I had two people – Muffy Davis and Stan Clawson – who were around my age, with spinal cord injuries, in wheelchairs, who volunteered at the hospital and came and visited me. Their advice and straight talk made all the difference in my recovery.

Now, most hospitals have a peer mentor program – I’m actually a mentor at the University of Utah (U of U) Hospital now. I speak with newly injured patients and help them see there is a very worthwhile life to live after their accident! I also became involved in the outdoor TRAILS and SPLORE programs for the disabled at the U of U, where I learned to kayak, horseback ride, water/snow-ski, river-rafting trips and joined in accessibility studies for vacation/destination resorts.

My kids were welcome for almost every opportunity, which I appreciated. Since my accident, I have learned that there isn’t anything I can’t enjoy doing – it just takes some determined, logistical consideration. Before the accident, my favorite sport was softball, and when I discovered how difficult it now was to hit, throw or ‘run,’ I learned ‘if you can’t do – coach!’ I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to coach both of my kids’ baseball and softball teams.”

Take what the doctors tell you with a grain of salt.

“The medical field is still learning about spinal cord injuries, and each individual injury is so different – reach out and get educated about your condition. I remember the doctor telling me, ‘Miss Neal, you are a T12-L1 ASIA-A complete paraplegic – you will never walk again … and any movement recovered within the first year will be all you’ll ever get.’

The best education I received after my accident was provided through my rehab doctor, Jeffrey Rosenbluth. He conducts annual nine-week spinal cord forums where patients learn everything from anatomy to hygiene to an outdoor expo where booths from local business and volunteer groups provide exciting opportunities to enjoy the outdoors again.

I’ve gone each year and learned new things each time and now I understand the ‘why’ behind my physical issues and that helps me accept my limitations and approach new challenges.

Ironically, six years later, I had to have extreme surgery to remove infected bone caused by an invasive pressure sore. At ORMC Wound Care and Hyperbarics, my wound doctors, Peter Clemens and Joan Balcombe, recommended hyperbaric treatments to promote expedited wound healing.  Surprisingly, my spinal cord doctor wasn’t very supportive of that route, but I chose to proceed with hyperbaric treatments.

Miraculously, on top of expedited healing of my incision line and damaged tissue, I also recovered my bowel and bladder functions – something I hadn’t had control of since my accident. Shortly thereafter, I was driving and singing with the radio and realized I was tapping my foot with the music … my hip flexors were working now too! Unfortunately, hyperbaric treatment is outrageously expensive, so I couldn’t continue the treatments; otherwise, who knows where I’d be a year later. But I’m very grateful for the control I’ve regained as a ‘side-benefit’. You just never know … and neither do the doctors.”

Get on with your life.

“Your attitude drives everything in your life – whether you have a spinal cord injury or not. You have to accept that your old life is behind you and look forward to the new one. I had to let go of some habits – my house is no longer immaculate, but I can clean even the most awkward space and perform every menial task.

Connie Neal celebrates with daughter Kaitlinn at a school award ceremony

I struggle to shovel snow or mow the lawn, but I can vacuum and garden without much limitation … and my kids need something to do, right?! I have had to learn humility and a little dependence. It’s okay to ask for help when I really need it, instead of being stubborn and wanting to prove I can do it.  I’m learning each day to value the blessings I do have and not focus on those things I no longer have … and I have a pretty amazing life!

Work if you can.

“Work helps you satisfy the need to feel valued and will fight the feelings of inadequacy and depression that may arise. Decide what you can do and what you want to do and then figure out how to accomplish it. You can contribute an amazing amount. I find pride and satisfaction in providing for my family and not relying on outside assistance. I realize not everyone has that luxury; but if you can work, why not work?! It’s given me purpose, responsibility and a reason to get out of bed each morning … just like everyone else has to, to support my family. Why should my paralysis separate me from everyone else?

Don’t be afraid to experiment to find what works best for you. Everyone told me I’d have to give up my Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV because of its height and the fact that women don’t have the upper body strength to transfer in and out of that kind of vehicle. I tried the techniques my occupational therapist (feet first approach) suggested, but they didn’t work for me because my knees kept locking. After a very long day filled with agonizing, bloody and bruising attempts, I finally discovered the bottom-first method worked for me. Now I drive an even taller Nissan Pathfinder and have ‘the arms of the man I’ve always wanted’ to prove it!”

The biggest lesson Connie learned

“I’ve really learned what is most important in life – my family, my faith and my friends – everything else is window dressing,” says Connie. “Although my kids grew up a little faster than I would have liked, they’ve gained so much insight and empathy for people with disabilities and have developed a whole skill set most adults never acquire. They volunteer with me in helping other disabled people enjoy life.  They’ve learned one of the most valuable lessons – that it’s okay to be different – and they’ve even been able to pass some of these lessons to their own friends. I couldn’t be a prouder mom of two amazing kids! They are my life, the reason I’m still around … and I love them very much.”

Connie sums up her journey with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in times of comfort and convenience, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy.”

Do you have a story about how you re-entered the work world after a spinal cord injury? We would love to interview you for a future profile. Please contact Will2Walk today.

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