Britany’s battles: 20-year-old determined to walk again
By Sarah Nagem
Dressed in a black-and-white polka dot skirt, a black top and black Converse sneakers, Britany LaGasse looks like any other 20-year-old going to church on a late spring Sunday.
But unlike most others, Britany needed help to put those clothes on.
And unlike other 20-year-olds, Britany is heading to church from a nursing home.
On this day, she is on her way to Nazareth Community Church in Rockwell. Four church members help push Britany’s wheelchair through the halls of the Brian Center.
She stops at the nurses’ station to sign herself out for the day, cupping her right hand under her left to gain more control of the pen.
Outside, church member Daryl Shelby lifts 93-pound Britany out of the chair and into the front seat of his sedan. When she’s situated, he and Larry Fowler, another church member, take the wheels off her chair and place them in the trunk. They fold the seat of the chair, decorated with stick-on flowers, and put it in the backseat.
The process takes three minutes or so ó much longer than the few seconds most people spend hopping in the car. Britany looks tired.
Going to church, though, is worth the effort to her. She’s thankful for the chance to be with the congregation at Nazareth Community Church ó people she calls her new family.
A four-wheeler accident in 2005 left Britany partially paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair.
And her hardships have continued to pile on since the accident.
Her mother died. Her grandmother is terminally ill. And she isn’t receiving the intense physical therapy that could help her regain the use of her legs.
But none of that, Britany says, is going to stop her. She’s determined to walk again.
Britany knows something about overcoming challenges. She was born with foot deformities and developed scoliosis that required surgery to correct. (See related story.)
She always came through.
Already, Britany has exceeded expectations. After the accident, she and her family weren’t sure she would ever be able to sign her name again.
On May 28, 2005, Britany finished her high school career.
After four years of cheerleading, yearbook, student government and excellent attendance, she graduated from Salisbury High.
The next day, a Sunday, Britany went to church at Coburn United Methodist and returned to her North Church Street home. A friend from school picked her up, and they drove to his father’s house in Thomasville to go four-wheeling.
Britany had driven the four-wheeler before. They took off on an old golf course, Britany in the driver’s seat and her friend behind her.
Suddenly, they hit a pothole. The four-wheeler flipped, sending her friend flying off. Britany grabbed the brakes and held on.
She landed on her back. The four-wheeler landed on top of her.
“I remember my neck moving down,” Britany says. “I remember breaking it, basically.”
She remembers that now, but she didn’t remember much of anything right after the accident. She couldn’t even recall graduating the day before.
Britany woke up at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem. Her mother, Rhonda LaGasse, was by her side.
Realizing that she couldn’t move, Britany’s first thought was a likely one: “Why did this have to happen to me?”
Britany has started to work through that question over the past few years. But nothing was easy right away.
Doctors gave her a less-than-1-percent chance of walking again and a one-in-10 chance of moving her arms, Britany’s mother said in 2005.
Britany had broken her neck between the fourth and fifth vertebrae, said Dr. Andrew Koman, an orthopedic surgeon at Baptist who has treated her. Britany also injured ó but did not break ó her spinal cord.
She sustained what doctors call partial injuries, which gives hope that Britany will recover.
Koman now gives Britany a better than 50-50 chance of “some limited walking.”
“She’s very lucky,” Koman says. “Well, she was unlucky, but she could have been more unlucky.”
Shortly after the accident, Britany had three surgeries ó doctors fused the separated vertebrae and inserted metal plates in her neck. They placed a filter in her right leg to catch any blood clots.
Britany’s friend, who she doesn’t talk to much anymore, suffered minor injuries in the accident. Doctors treated and released him from the hospital.
Britany and her mother, however, headed to the Charlotte Institute of Rehabilitation for a month of intense physical therapy.
There, therapists helped Britany stretch her muscles and balance, and they encouraged her to stand up while holding on to something.
Rhonda LaGasse played a big part in that early rehabilitation.
“She wasn’t going anywhere,” Britany says. “We were best friends.”
Another heartbreakBut they couldn’t stay there forever. Charlotte Institute of Rehabilitation isn’t a long-term care facility.
That July, they came home to Salisbury. Rhonda LaGasse was disabled herself, but she fed, bathed and dressed her daughter.
“It’s like I was an infant again,” Britany says.
That summer was a world apart from what she had planned. Before the accident, Britany had enrolled in classes at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College to become a certified-nursing assistant. For the time being, at least, the accident had shattered those dreams.
But Rhonda LaGasse knew Britany wouldn’t give up.
“She’s a fighter,” Rhonda told the Salisbury Post shortly after the accident. “She’s always been a fighter. If it’s at all possible, she will walk and use her arms again.”
That kind of positive thinking motivated Britany.
But on Sept. 3, 2006, Britany woke up around 4:30 a.m. in the bed she shared with her mother. Her catheter needed to be emptied.
She yelled for her mom but got no response. The cordless phone that usually sat near the bed wasn’t on its charger, so Britany couldn’t call anyone for help.
So she stayed there ó for 10 hours, until her grandmother stopped by the next afternoon.
Eunice Overcash found Rhonda lying on the kitchen floor. She had died of a heart attack.
“It was horrible,” Britany says. “I was ready to give up. … She was my number-one support.”
Britany didn’t give up.
But she had to make some tough decisions. She couldn’t stay by herself, and she had no place to go.
She doesn’t have much contact with her father and did not want to stay with him. Her grandmother’s own health problems prevented her from being able to care for Britany.
She has a half-sister in Salisbury, but living with her wasn’t an option.
So Britany went to the nursing home.
She spends about six hours a day on the Internet, checking out MySpace and keeping in touch with some old friends.
She types normally with her right hand but uses a pen attached to a wrist cuff on her left hand to punch the keys.
The Internet provides her a connection to her former life ó a life of young people.
Now, she shares a room with as many as three elderly patients, who surely aren’t interested in social networking sites and shows like “Made” on MTV.
Britany’s main outlet ó and saving grace ó is spending time with Larry and Lois Fowler, a Salisbury couple with grown children of their own.
The Fowlers have become a huge part of Britany’s life. They visit her at the nursing home as often as they can. They bring her dinner. She loves cheeseburgers from College Bar-B-Que.
And they take her to church.