Tell her she can’t, she’ll tell you, “Just watch me.”
U.S. Army veteran Twila Adams won the prestigious Spirit of the Games Award at this year’s National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Louisville, Kentucky. The award is given to one wheelchair athlete out of hundreds across the nation, Great Britain and Puerto Rico who exemplifies the heart and soul of the Games through leadership, encouragement and a never-give-up attitude.
But that spirit is not just on display at the Games. Adams’ positive attitude only got stronger since the 1994 car accident that put her in a chair.
“My parents raised me to believe the impossible, and that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. Don’t tell me I can’t. Don’t tell me I won’t. Tell me what’s next and what I have to do, because I’m still here,” she said.
Adams, who gets care at the Salisbury and the Charlie Norwood Augusta VA Medical Centers, served 11 years in the Army, with tours in Korea, Turkey and a deployment to Desert Storm, until road marches and bad knees caught up with her.
But three years after leaving the Army, another vehicle ran a red light as she was turning right.
“I swerved and missed her and just bumped another car. I wasn’t even going fast, but I could only move my mouth and eyes. I knew then there was something wrong.
“I heard the doctors telling my parents that I’m paralyzed from the neck down. The prognosis didn’t look good. Doctors kept telling my parents what I couldn’t do, and kept telling me what I couldn’t do.
“I looked at my doctor and said, “I want you to wear a nice tie next time you come in so we have something to talk about and stop telling me what I can’t do and let me work on this.
“I asked all of the people who wanted to visit me to stop visiting. They sit and look at you. Nobody wanted to move my arms and legs. They’re all afraid they are going to hurt me. They’re afraid if they lift my arm, it’s going to flop around.”
The doctor lifted her leg.
She kept it there.
“That’s a spasm,” he said.
“Do you want to do it again?” she asked.
He lifted her leg again. She held it up and moved her foot around.
The woman who doctors said would most likely be paralyzed from the neck down worked hard on her therapy. She can now walk briefly.
“I’m considered a ‘walking quad,’ she said. “I can ambulate. I can kind of wobble and drag my foot. Like most quads, I can’t feel a lot, but do have chronic pain from the neck down, and intense burning and pain in my hands, legs and feet.”
Yet look at any photos of Adams at the Wheelchair Games and there is either a look of fierce determination or a radiant smile.
“I’m not the hard-charging sergeant I was in the Army. I’m in a new body. I respect my body.”
Discovering the Wheelchair Games in 2002 was a turning point for her.
“I remember going to my spinal cord injury exam and the rec therapist asked me if wanted to go.
“And do what?” Adams asked her.
“You can play 9-ball,” the therapist said.
“From my scooter?!?”
“Yes, and you can play table tennis.”
She did more than that.
“I showed up at that first one and got to the opening ceremony and was blown away. I watched other people compete, doing air rifle, and archery with their teeth. I was amazed. I said, ‘Oh my goodness, my life is about to blow up. I’m about to die having fun.’
“Oh my goodness gracious, life is good. Without my injury, I never would have known about this stuff. I used to say my accident happened to me. By the time I was introduced to the Wheelchair Games, I was asked to go trap shooting. I play billiards in Tampa. At the Wheelchair Games, I do shot put, discus, javelin, air rifle, air pistol, bowling, boccia ball, power lifting. Now I say this did not happen to me, it happened for me. It changed my life.”
When she’s back home, she’s busy playing adaptive tennis at least two hours a day, several days a week.
“I was told I would need a power chair since I’m a quad. I don’t need a power chair,” she said. “I use my own, sports chair. Then I found out about an international adaptive tennis tournament. I was told I can’t go because I couldn’t compete at that level. I said, ‘Well, I’m going.’
“I went and got my butt whupped. But my second match was a doubles. I told my partner, “You get the backhand, I’ll get the forehand,’ and we won the tiebreaker.”
That story makes her recreation therapist, Valerie McNary, laugh out loud.
“She came up to me and said, ‘Val, everybody keeps telling me I can’t do it, but Val, I’m going to do it.’
NVWG: Twila Adams
“That’s typical of her,” McNary said. “She doesn’t care. It’s not about the winning. She doesn’t have to win. She wants to live and see other people living their lives. She’s not typical in any fashion or form. Most people don’t have the attitude she had right away. She’s already my spirit of the game every day. She is that spirit every, single day and doesn’t need the title.”
Jen Purser, from the Paralyzed Veterans of America Wheelchair Games leadership team, said Adams “truly embodies the spirit of what the Wheelchair Games are all about — camaraderie, support and perseverance.
“We were thrilled to see her win this year’s award,” Purser said.
But Adams said even with the right attitude, there are days she is like anyone else. It’s not all puppy dog kisses and unicorns.
“You know, we’re all flesh. Rains on me the same as anyone else,” she said. “I get depressed. I get those emotions, but I make a choice. I can say something to myself and motivate something in myself and this will go away.
“Exercise changes my emotions, better than sitting around and watching the news all day. I tell people, ‘Just get up, open the blinds and go outside and see what’s going on. Feel the sun on your skin. Go out and just let the breeze blow on you, and radiate over you, and you will feel good.”
But those Wheelchair Games — that, she said, is real balm for her soul.
“I’m like a kid in the candy store, every year, happy to be alive and hugging necks — even the grumpy ones. It’s about me having that one time a year to connect with people who know what I’m going through. They’re just like me. And if we can inspire the novices and share a little bit of hope, then my injury is not in vain.”
This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.