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LOVE THE LIFE YOU LIVE By: Noelle McNeil

On August 2, 2005 at the age of 20, my world got turned upside down.

I was riding a four year old horse for some friends at a horse show. I was nationally ranked equestrian, had ridden since I was five years old and had trained horses for years. I thought this show would be uneventful…I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Always a perfectionist, in high school I became a perfectionist about my body. I was young and impressionable. I have since learned that you cannot live your life with regrets, so I have let this foolishness go, but I have to admit that it became far too important to me to have the approval of my peers. My friends all smoked to stay skinny. I was a track athlete, so I chose diet pills and food restrictions as my methods to help keep thin. Even though I was 5 foot 9 inches tall and a size 4, I was never comfortable in my body. I always sought perfection. I kept trying to be a size zero. It even sounds crazy, zero means nothing, literally. My preoccupation with thinness was soon to be replaced with a preoccupation to stay alive and regain basic human functions.

The four year old horse went berserk at the show and threw me. Upon impact with the ground, I was immediately thrust into a coma. I thank God everyday that the EMT’s that were on site at the horseshow recognized the severity of my injury and called for a rescue helicopter. I was heli-vacced to Robert Wood Johnson Trauma Center in New Brunswick. I never regained consciousness during my two weeks there. I almost died several times. My prognosis was dismal. I was semiconscious as they transported me to JFK Medical Center. They have an intensive care type of brain trauma unit. I stayed there for two months and eventually regained consciousness. After two months I was moved to a Rehabilitation hospital, affiliated with JFK, Hartwyck at Oaktree in Edison, NJ. Once I realized where I was and the condition I was in (a wheelchair, in diapers, and on a feeding tube) I immediately began requesting cyanide pills to end my life.

With a head injury, your logic, comprehension and understanding of the situation at hand comes back in time, but not right away. I was unable to reason through why the doctors and medical practitioners would not facilitate me ending my life. To me, I saw being dependent on people (to wheel me around, feed me, and take me to the restroom) as not truly being alive. People would always tell me how lucky I was to have awakened from the coma and to become aware. I didn’t see it that way.

As I became aware of my surroundings and what had happened to me, I sank into a very deep depression. My neurologist/head injury rehabilitation doctor immediately put me on a small dose of Lexapro. I am no longer on Lexapro, yet I recognize how much it helped me and kept me from wanting to end my life in the first year post injury. For that reason, I am a huge advocate of identifying and treating depression. Antidepressants have their place in treatment options for those who are suffering be it physically as I was, or psychologically.

Now I am able to keep my head clear and focused on whatever situation I have at hand. I am in the gym seven days a week and I realize that even though I have regained the ability to walk, talk, go to school, and drive, I seek more. I have grown to know myself very truly and deeply through this experience. I am not satisfied with anything that I see as typical. I understand that what I have gone through/achieved is not typical, yet I seek to become as successful and able bodied as any other typical 24-year-old. I have made it my mission to keep on improving in every way I see possible. I recognize that I was saved for a reason and I feel that it is my responsibility to act in the most proactive way possible to overcome this injury and share my experiences.

I do have some residual issues from my injury. I was stricken with an extremely ataxic right arm and I am right handed. I have short term memory issues. Even though it bothers me beyond belief that I remain slightly dependent when it comes to have my food cut for me, I have realized that almost everywhere offers a pasta dish for vegetarians. Since I have mastered cutting pasta with my fork, or even better, requesting penne, I usually order the vegetarian meal when I am at a formal dinner. Thank goodness I am a girl because I am not sure that a 350 Lbs football player could enact the “Damsel in Distress” routine as well as I do!

I have made some motivational speeches at the United Cerebral Palsy Center in Edison and at Monmouth University. They have been well received. I think it is so important to help young people realize that there is so much more to life than being skinny and popular.

I think the world at large needs to understand that people with disabilities should not be devalued.

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