A Path from Paralysis to Empowering Others

December 4, 2023

Joanna Adams, who became paralyzed in a skiing accident is proving that sometimes the only limitations are the ones we set on ourselves.


Editor’s Note: Joanna Adams, a physician assistant (PA) based in Portland, OR specializes in aiding recovery from traumatic health conditions including spinal cord injury. We thought her story was especially interesting, not just for what she does, but why. Adams opens up about her her own journey of resilience after a skiing accident left her paralyzed at age 21.

Joanna Adams works as a physician assistant (PA) at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in Portland. She helps people recover, often from traumatic health conditions like spinal cord injuries and neurological diseases.

“We can’t make them perfect, but we can give them a chance at a somewhat normal life, just with adaptations,” Joanna said.

It’s something she herself is familiar with. Joanna became paralyzed at the age of 21 while skiing on Mount Hood. She tried to race a friend down the mountain.

“It was really icy that day and I ended up catching an edge and when I caught the edge, it threw me in a tumble,” Joanna said. “I was already an EMT at the time, and when I stopped moving, I was on my back with my knees bent, and I knew immediately I was paralyzed.”

It was an overwhelming and tough situation. She started her rehabilitation at the Legacy Good Samaritan Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon, also known as RIO.

“At RIO, it was, ‘We’re gonna get you dressed. We’re gonna have you take a shower by yourself. We’re going to have you learn how to transfer from a wheelchair to a bed,” she said.

Joanna began recovering and adapting to her new normal. Then she met her husband, Wayne, and they had two kids. She also accomplished something she thought was impossible after her accident: becoming a physician assistant (PA).

“I always wanted to be a PA, even before this whole injury happened. Some people say, ‘Oh, because of your injury you wanted to be a PA.’ And I tell them, ‘No, despite my injury, I became a PA,'” she said.

To her knowledge, Joanna says she was the first person in a wheelchair to graduate from PA school in Oregon. Her life trajectory is different than she ever thought it would be.

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