By Cindy Kolbe
In May of 2000, Elizabeth Kolbe, fourteen years old, was paralyzed in a car accident with a spinal cord injury at C6-7. That night, unable to move, Beth reassured her mom, saying, “I’m okay. Everything will be okay.”
Two surgeries and two weeks later, Beth transferred to a rehab hospital in Green Springs, Ohio, to work with an extraordinary physical therapist who was an expert in spinal cord injury. The first time in therapy, laying on her stomach, Beth could not lift her shoulders off the mat. At all.
“When I was injured, I really had no idea what was in store for me.”
Beth and her mom became a team, the younger one shy but determined. No progress in the first weeks, despite strenuous effort, exposed the extent of her hope. Incrementally, over more weeks, she learned how to sit up by herself and how to begin to use her hands.
“I had to relearn how to do everything.”
The neurosurgeon thought her injury was complete, with the spinal cord cut through, but a strand remained since she had a small return of sensation in her legs and trunk. Still, no leg movement, except for spasms. For the first wheelchair of her own, she insisted on a manual chair so she would get stronger faster. She also cut her stay in the rehab hospital short to start her freshman year of high school on time with her friends.
“Early on, I decided that I was going to become completely independent no matter how long it took.”
In the pool for outpatient physical therapy, Beth gradually learned how to float. She found freedom in the water at a time when movement on land was grueling. Not a swimmer before her injury, she loved to float across the pool with her arms waving gently under the surface.
“I started doing the backstroke. Then, learning to swim on my stomach and still breathe was a big challenge initially. I basically swim with my upper body and pull my entire body with my arms. Since my hands can't cup the water, my arms do all the work. It would be something like an able-bodied swimmer with their legs tied together and their hands in fists.”
Beth noticed an unusual sign in Seattle on her first swim trip to the USA Swimming Disability Nationals. She saw a billboard with a girl in a power chair wearing a graduation gown. The caption said, “Quadriplegia at Harvard: A+.”
“Harvard first got my attention because of the national billboard campaign, which suggests an appreciation of the contributions that students with disabilities can make.”
The billboard pictured Brooke Ellison, who graduated from Harvard in 2000. Before her senior year of high school, Beth competed at Junior Nationals in Connecticut and requested a last minute stop to see a college that was not on her list of possibilities.
“I toured the Harvard campus and just fell in love with it.”
Beth applied to Harvard but didn’t tell anyone because she didn’t think she would get in. She joined her high school swim team. With no lift at the pool, her teammates helped her in and out of the water, but she decided at the first practice that she would get dressed in the locker room without her mom’s help, starting with loose sweat pants over a wet suit. The only finger she could control, her left index, could move three inches up or down. Using this small gift to her full advantage, the only adaptive aid she depended on was a key holder.
“I was able to score quite a few points in high school. My coach put me in the harder events that nobody wanted to do, like the butterfly. Since the top three swimmers scored, as long as I finished I would score points.”
The first in her family to attend an Ivy League school, she moved into a freshman dorm in the fall of 2004; since she would not miss the first month of college, she declined her spot on Team USA for the Athens Paralympics.
“I heard stories from the other swimmers, but I don’t have any regrets. I knew I’d have more chances.”
Beth’s freshman year, as manager for Harvard Women's Swimming and Diving, she practiced with the team twice a week. She tried to read every word of her assignments, swam four or five days a week, volunteered in a special ed. class every Friday, and attained independence without an assistant, a rare feat for those with quadriplegia. She also had no social life. Her first New England winter, she ended up at the health center with mild frostbite in her fingers from wheeling through snow, despite wearing gloves. In the spring, she was invited to join the Harvard Women’s Swimming team, the first full varsity member with a visible disability. She practiced six days a week with her teammates and competed at every home meet.
“I couldn’t imagine a better college experience and a large part of that was being a member of the Harvard Women’s Swimming and Diving team.”
Beth spent the summer of 2006 in Washington, DC. Fiercely independent, she learned to sometimes accept a push up Capitol Hill from the Metro stop, especially when it was raining. Otherwise, if anyone started to push her chair, she turned and lightly smacked their hand. She interned for Secretary of State John Kerry (then Senator) and joined him on the Senate floor for the stem cell debate. Before she started her junior year of college, she earned a bronze medal at her second World Cup in England and changed her major from biology to health care policy.
“I spent my summer in DC where I fell in love with the excitement on the Hill and the chance to make policy that makes a difference.”
Beth’s friend Brittany volunteered with her in special ed. classrooms every week. Brittany’s dad had a spinal cord injury. Beth’s last year at Harvard, Brittany convinced her to venture out beyond her bubble of swimming, classes, assignments, and volunteering. She refused to let inaccessibility get in their way. When one of the river houses had a party with no elevator, Brittany carried her on the stairs. The broken elevator at the Harvard T stop was not a problem, either. Beth learned that the world is welcoming, even in a wheelchair—with the help of a strong friend.
“Brittany got me out of my shell during my senior year. Before then, I hardly ever went out socially. ...Strong friends are worth their weight in gold.”
Beth’s confidence bloomed as she traveled to cities near and far for swim meets. She competed on the U.S. Paralympic National Team for five years and on the Harvard Women’s Swimming team for three. She surprised people by getting to the airport on her own and sometimes flying by herself. She showered and changed in locker rooms efficiently after countless swim practices, though she still needed an extra minute for the zipper on her skinny jeans. All roads led to the Beijing Paralympics in 2008 and the end of an era. Her competition included three new, fast S3 swimmers. She wrote about her most memorable 50-meter event in China.
“I swam a 1:10.55, a best time and a new American Record, which places me fifth in the world. What a great race!”
She retired from competitive swimming with fourteen Paralympic American Records. Eleven remain. She discovered the outdoor pools at Stanford and loved to swim under the sun in every season.
|Beth at Stanford|
“My injury altered and enriched my perspective and opened a wealth of opportunities that have defined my passions and goals.”
At Stanford Law School, Beth served as Co-President of the Stanford Law Association and President of the National Association of Law Students with Disabilities, only two of many activities that earned her the Dean's Award for Excellence in Service at graduation.
“Disability rights in general is becoming a bigger issue. It’s filtering into the law school environment. More students with disabilities are going to law school which is incredibly encouraging.”
Beth passed the bar exam and moved to her favorite city, Washington, DC, to work as a health care policy lawyer for a firm on K Street. She served on the American Bar Association’s Commission on Disability Rights and helped people qualify for social security disability benefits, continuing the pro bono work she began in law school at a homeless shelter.
“They appreciate that there is someone who is helping them who understands what it's like to be disabled. Anytime anyone has an interesting life experience or has overcome obstacles in the past, they have a different take on things. It's made me more interested in the client perspective.”
A reporter asked her what she is most proud of. She answered with no hesitation.
“Becoming independent. That is my greatest achievement.”
Beth continues to mentor, as she has since her accident. She works long days on health policy and is a lobbyist on Capitol Hill for clients who serve people with disabilities. Her pro bono work includes legal battles for individuals who have been denied necessary medical services. She wheels long distances, but also uses Uber (cars, not the higher SUVs), since taxi drivers usually avoid picking her up because of her wheelchair. She transfers into the back seat independently and explains to the driver how to take the big wheels off her chair so it fits in the trunk. She plays as hard as she works. She loves to cook for brunch or dinner parties with friends and travels often with her boyfriend.
As Beth said sixteen years ago, “I’m okay. Everything will be okay.”
Thank you mobileWOMEN for requesting this feature! About a decade after my daughter Beth’s injury, I felt compelled to write about my struggles with guilt after I fell asleep at the wheel and caused her disability. With Beth’s encouragement, I wrote a memoir and added her voice from media quotes and essays. I share the highlights on my blog: www.strugglingwithserendipity.com *Cindy Barnes Kolbe