Blog – High School with a Spinal Cord Injury

August 4, 2016

By: Cindy Kolbe

In May of 2000, my fourteen-year-old daughter looked forward to making the volleyball team at her new school. Instead, Beth would begin her freshman year with a C6-7 spinal cord injury, the result of a car accident near our hometown in Ohio. I worried endlessly about school and her future.

“You don’t really have time to cope with things,” Beth said. “You just kind of get thrown back into the world.”

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Beth in her first days after rehab

She cut her stay short at the rehab hospital to start her first year of high school on time. She refused the easier option: tutoring. No matter that she was pale, tired, weak, and susceptible to infection. No matter that she could only push herself a short distance in her new manual wheelchair before her arms trembled and exhaustion set in.


“Life is about making choices. At this point, some people may have taken a year off of school to rest and build their strength at home. I wanted to start at Tiffin Columbian High School with the rest of my freshman class.”

Three months after the accident, a rare intense storm ushered in the first morning of school with hard driving rain. In the parking lot, I pulled Beth’s wheelchair from the trunk, zoomed to her open door, scooped her legs over the doorway, grabbed the side of her jeans, and lifted her to the wheelchair. My older daughter Maria held an umbrella over us until it broke. The soaked girls entered the building together.

“I began high school as a different person than I was in junior high.”

My well of worry overflowed that morning. At lunchtime, when I met a smiling Beth at school, I could breathe easier. She looked completely drained and I wanted to take her home to rest. She declined.

“Kids stared a lot at first. They wanted to get my attention, to talk to me, to see how I had changed. I was already used to being stared at.”

Beth sat next to a friend in each class. At first, they photocopied their class notes and handled her bookbag. Muscle spasms made her legs bounce straight out, rigid. Her friends could safely bend her knee to “break” the spasm and put her foot back on the foot-rest, before she figured out how to do it herself.

“I had a small group of very close friends who helped me in many ways.” 

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Beth, second from left with her high school gal-pals

X friends and wheel covers Sept. 2000

School Spirit Wheel-Covers

Beth and her friends painted the wheel covers for her chair to display school spirit. My daughter received a gift, an elegant silver and gold ring with a small diamond, engraved with the word HOPE. Her best friends wore identical rings.

“I tired easily and fought infections and a bout of pneumonia that first year in high school, but through it I learned how to take care of myself.”

On weekdays, I picked Beth up before the last class period. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, she fell asleep at home by 2:30 pm. The other three weekdays I drove her to outpatient physical therapy directly from school.

X high school graduation

High School Graduation

“I realized that my biggest challenge would be to insist on doing things myself and to become independent again.”

On the stormy day that Beth started high school in a wheelchair, I wish I had known that she would achieve independence—as a student at Harvard College. I had worried needlessly about her future.


About the author: A life-long disability advocate, Cindy Kolbe managed group homes in Ohio and ran a non-profit in Massachusetts. She currently lives in Summerville, South Carolina. Her daughter Beth is a health policy lawyer in Washington, DC. Cindy’s blog shares their adventures at





12 responses to “Blog – High School with a Spinal Cord Injury”

  1. That’s really inspiring. Yes sure Beth will become independent and stand on her own. i wish for it 🙂

    I am on my way to help others in recovery from spinal cord injuries.


  2. Dr. Jill Gerson says:

    What a moving and authentic is Cindi’s description! Cindy, have you considered writing a biographical
    novel? I would be very interested in knowing about your feelings and the ways in which you coped.. I beleve That Your experience will help many others

    Dr. Jill Gerson Parker

    • Cindy Kolbe says:

      Thank you, Jill! Yes, I have written a memoir. An editor at a publishing house is currently reviewing my book proposal and manuscript. I also am sharing some of my story on the blog I started recently ( It has been difficult for me to write about my emotions during the first few years after my daughter’s injury, but I hope that you’re right, and that my experience will help many others.

  3. Jaime Parkinson says:

    Hey there, t12/l1 sci, severed here. I’m 22 yrs post injury, a mom to a 15 y.o. daughter & 6 y.o. son. I was fortunate to finish h.s. b4 my car crash 7.2.94. I began college as a new person. Our possibilities are endless, only our minds restrain us. I have been a voice for myself & others like me, at 1st as an advocate for safety, now an advocate for accessibility. Never give in, never give up. You are the Only one who Knows You, & You do You!! Best wishes.

    • Cindy Kolbe says:

      Hi Jaime! Yes! Most of us have possibilities that we don’t take advantage of. And I think it’s awesome that you’re a mom who has always raised her voice for positive change; being an advocate really is an important job. Best wishes to you as well!

  4. Shellie Blum says:

    Very moving story, thank you for sharing!

  5. Nicci says:

    Cindy, it sounds like you raised one fine young lady, and you should be proud not only of her, but of yourself as well! Thank you for sharing your inspiring story, and can’t wait to see that memoir when it hits the shelves!!!

    • Cindy Kolbe says:

      Hi Nicci,
      It was so nice to read your comment today! Yes, I’m proud of Beth, and how she works long hours as a lawyer and still makes time to mentor and volunteer. I want to be like her when I grow up! 😉 Thank you for your support of my memoir, too! I hope it will make a positive impact.

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