Mandy Willmore has never felt so happy wrapping Christmas presents.
She spent a whole day this past week preparing gifts for those who have given so much of themselves to her this past year. The prospect of returning to a holiday atmosphere at home in Rock Springs, Wyo., is almost a sensory overload.
She’ll look around at all the colorful decorations, and she’ll try to block out the sterile whites that accompanied last Dec. 25. She’ll savor the smell of a home-cooked meal, and she’ll try to forget about the cafeteria cuisine that in part served as last year’s Christmas dinner. She’ll hear the joy in the voices of her two younger brothers, her 3-year-old sister and her mother (Nissa Homan) and stepfather (Robert Homan), all while shoving the somber smiles of a year ago to the back of her mind.
Still, Willmore remembers her limitations last Christmas all too well.
She’d just been transported across the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to Craig Hospital in suburban Denver, where she was combating the acute lower-body pain that coincided with her development of surfer’s myelopathy. Too weak to do much else but sit up, Willmore watched as friends and family members unwrapped her gifts.
Her immediate fear about how her life was unfolding made the mental exhaustion far more difficult to handle than suffering any physical affliction.
Normally boisterous and bubbly, Willmore was suddenly distant and detached.
“Last Christmas, I didn’t have the energy to even think about the day, what it was, let alone open up any gifts,” she said Thursday, recalling the scene.
Today, she’ll again be seated when her family’s yuletide celebrations reach their peak. Many of those same limitations she was saddled with are with her every day.
So much, though, is different this time around.
Although she remains paralyzed from the waist down and is still in a wheelchair, Willmore and her willpower courageously stand tall.
Willmore had finished her first surfing lesson on Dec. 16, 2010. She was passing the time as a college sophomore in the Aloha State before the South Dakota Mines women’s basketball team was to play in the Hoop N Surf basketball tournament. What she thought was back pain quickly turned much more severe when she realized it hurt too much to move her legs.
Soon, she simply couldn’t move them at all.
After being rushed to a medical facility, Willmore learned that she’d developed surfer’s myelopathy, a spinal cord injury that most often emerges when people who have traveled long distances in the preceding 24 to 48 hours hit the waves for the first time.
The condition has left Willmore without regular feeling in her lower body, and full recovery is no guarantee. Even the rosiest prospects foretell a recuperative process rooted in years of continual therapy.
Willmore witnessed multiple breakthroughs in her first few months as she became accustomed to her new life in a wheelchair. She’d learned how to cope with the prospect of daily domestic chores, and physically she’d experience regular shots of feeling up and down her legs as results of the strenuous physical work she was putting in. Often, she’d know when she had pinched her calf. Those moments occurred regularly for a while.
The same feelings come and go all these months later, but the sensations have plateaued to a degree. Right now, the chances of her walking unassisted don’t appear to be much better than they were before.
Progress is measured in more than absolutes, however. Willmore is well on her way to reaching new heights. According to an email from Amanda Wilson, the operations manager at the SCI Recovery Project in Denver — Willmore completes the most intense portions of her therapy there — Willmore has recently gained sensation in her hamstrings and down her legs during particular exercises and while in a weight-supported standing position. She can use a walker to take “minimally assisted” steps with only a belt holding up her legs for stability and devices holding up her toes.
She can lift and plant her foot and lock her knee on her own.
The work was anything but easy.
“The very first time I moved my legs (in the walker), I could barely do one or two steps,” she said. “Then the goal was a lap around the gym, and that took a long time for me to be able to do that. Five or six months, probably. But now a lap doesn’t seem like a lot.”
Twelve months hasn’t seemed like all that much, either, the way the past semester has gone. Normalcy has returned for Willmore, inasmuch as can be expected. She came home for a month over the summer and was able to go camping, whitewater rafting and ride a four-wheeler.
She currently lives in an apartment in Thornton, Colo., that has enough kitchen and bathroom space for her to maneuver freely. She’s attending classes at Regis University. She’s a student manager for the Rangers’ basketball team and helps throw in passes for certain drills.
She’s also adjusted nicely to maintaining a self-sufficient lifestyle. She uses a grabber to take softer and lighter objects down from high shelves, and Willmore can fully wash and dry her own laundry, though the process took a long time to work out.
At least she’s careful about it.
“It’s not a front-loader, so I pretty much have to climb up and hang on the inside lip of it to get some of the clothes in and out,” she said. “I always put my phone in a spot where I can reach it if I were ever to fall inside.”
Willmore explains these tasks with a giddy tone, as if the engineer within has been happy to break free. She described one invention that Robert made from an inch-thick dowel rod.
She and Homan cut out a hole in the rod that is the same shape as the knobs used to heat Willmore’s kitchen stove. By reaching over and adjusting the knobs with the rod, she can turn the temperature up and down without any worry of burning herself.
She’s cut down the time it takes to perform what were once simple tasks, but Willmore has undoubtedly grown more diligent in managing her day. It’s rarely a source of frustration for her anymore, but she said it doesn’t take much, sometimes, for impatience to set in.
Conversely, Willmore’s ability to feel impatient again is another sign for her that she’s settling in to this new phase of life.
Much of Willmore’s personality is swift, so her need to accomplish tasks now isn’t all that surprising. She acknowledges that she gets frustrated when she can’t quickly catch on to a new exercise in her physical therapy. She said she has to be reminded by staff that she’s significantly further along in her recovery than she was a couple of months before.
Urgency weaves its way through most of her tasks nowadays. She said her wheelchair already has an impressive number of dings and scratches for being less than a year old, often because she’s in a hurry when on the move.
The best source of those nicks might be the speed with which she tries to move in and out of her car. She said she takes apart and reassembles the wheelchair as fast as she can, mentally timing herself in the process.
“On my way back home this week, people were looking at me in the gas station lot, so I make it into a game to see how fast I can do it. People can watch, and I get to put on a show,” Willmore said. “I think my fastest is around 32 seconds. The first time I took it apart, it took 10 minutes.”
Always having a challenge and a further goal has helped spur Willmore throughout her rehabilitation. She’s hard on herself, not only because she has an intense desire to get better but also because he never wants to be content with what she’s accomplished.
“My family takes time out of their days to talk to me and be a bigger cheerleader for me than I am myself,” she said. “I’m never satisfied. I’ll call my family and explain what I’ve done, and they’ll say, ‘You’re not as excited as you should be!’ … I really value that they’re still a big part of my life.”
Mines head coach Barb Felderman has maintained regular contact with Willmore, saying she contacts her former player at least every couple of weeks. The coach has always admired her former player’s toughness and is impressed with Willmore’s physical development.
“She told me she can go over to a bar and do 16 pull-ups in her chair, and she’s able to bench over 150 pounds now,” Felderman said. “She’s getting very strong.”
It’s Willmore’s inner strength, though, that has left her acquaintances most impressed. At one of the SCI Recovery Project’s annual fundraisers, the administration gave Willmore the center’s “Yellow Jersey Award,” which honors the individual who embodies the recovery process “to the fullest extent, through hard work,
dedication, community, and personal growth,” according to Wilson’s email.
Needless to say, Willmore was surprised, and she barely had enough time to come up with a sentence in her head before a microphone was thrust in her hands.
“I said that aside from my own attitude and outlook on the whole thing, the people there have kept me going,” she said. “They’re like family, too.”
A couple of mechanical additions to the family are soon on the way. Within the next couple of months, Willmore said she expects to receive a new sports chair designed for athletic participation.
Even better will be the moment she receives her braces and arm crutches. She’s hoping to get fitted for them before the spring. Willmore said the therapist she talked to doesn’t recommend them to most patients because of the stress involved using them even for brief periods of time.
Unsurprisingly, Willmore is embracing this challenge head-on as well.
“I’m so excited. I don’t care if it’s something I can’t do for long periods of time. Even to get off my butt for a little while is great,” she said. “I need a challenge.”
Until that blissful moment of full recovery comes — if it comes — there will be plenty of challenges thrown at Willmore. Being able to take them on might just be the greatest gift she can give herself.
“If I could be 5-5 again, I’d never complain about my height. Ever,” she mused. “I really have no idea how tall I am when I’m sitting down. Maybe 3-foot-5. If I stand enough, from now on it’ll probably be like, ‘Whoa, I’m tall.’”
In the eyes of those who know her, she’s already an inspirational giant.
“It was a horrible time,” Felderman said, referring to Willmore’s plight and the Hardrockers’ reaction. “But she’s fought and fought and turned it all into another part of the experience. I know that nothing’s going to slow her down.”