"You can do hard things. Who believes that?" Leah Nixon asked an audience of fourth- and fifth-grade Rapid City students.
The students quickly shot their hands into the air.
Nixon, who delivered a multimedia talk Thursday at Wilson Elementary, knows a thing or two about completing difficult tasks and told students they too can achieve their goals through hard work, taking small steps and leaning on the support of those around you.
Last August, the 30-year-old Rapid City resident was working on a Habitat for Humanity home build when a forklift fell on top of her, leaving her trapped under the machine's crushing weight for about 30 minutes until she was removed by the Rapid City Fire Department and rushed to the hospital.
There, Nixon had eight surgeries, including multiple amputation and back procedures. The forklift damaged her spinal column, leaving her back, core and legs paralyzed, and she needed an above-the-knee amputation.
"I didn't care. I just wanted to survive," Nixon told a student who asked if she was upset when she learned she wouldn't be able to walk.
After 29 days in the intensive care unit, Nixon took a medical helicopter to Craig Hospital in Denver, which specializes in rehabilitating spinal cord injuries. Three months later she transferred to QLI in Omaha, where she re-learned skills such as how to cook, exercise and drive using adaptive hand controls. Three more months and she was back in Rapid City where she continues to heal and focus on her art.
"I think it's a pretty amazing thing to come so close to dying and just being so grateful for what I have: My brain and my arms and my hands and a supportive family and a supportive community," Nixon told the Journal. "Even though there's a lot of things that I can't do anymore, like run on the beautiful trails in Rapid City, I still get to be with my dog, I still get to be outside, and even just breathing or drinking a cup of coffee is something I can be really grateful for."
During her presentation, Nixon projected photographs and videos of her life before the accident, working as a full-time builder with Habitat for Humanity and going on runs. She also documented her recovery from being immobilized in the ICU to learning how to sit up to returning home.
"It took me a long time to get here," Nixon told the students.
She explained how she had to learn how to hold her torso up without being able to activate her back and core muscles, and how she must use her hands to move her legs every 30 minutes since she can't feel pressure building up. Taking care of her body is equivalent to a "part-time job," she said.
Nixon challenged the students to make their own goal, whether it's being nice to their friends or finishing a long book. She said they should focus on taking small steps and using the support of others, like when her father motivated her to complete a marathon.
Nixon brought some of her paintings to show the students and projected daily comic sketches where she draws herself as a weasel or balancing egg going through recovery.
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She first began drawing weasel cartoons at St. Thomas More High School, inspired by her Latin teacher who liked to use the word weasel, or mustela. Nixon renewed her interest in comics while studying art in college and drew daily comics for three years. She re-started the habit soon before her accident and began drawing her recovery-themed illustrations as soon as she could after the injury, about two weeks into her stay at the ICU.
Nixon, who had been focused on architecture and building before her accident, said she's happy to return to her artwork and has rented a space at the Racing Magpie Gallery.
The accident "really pushed me back towards painting and illustration and so I think it was a really exciting opportunity in some ways to be re-directed," she said. There are "paintings that I've been wanting to do for probably five years, I'm actually getting to do them now."
Nixon says she also hopes to create a graphic novel that illustrates her "journey through rehab" that would connect with other people dealing with spinal cord injuries as well as those who don't know anything about them.
Nixon and her sister Grace, who own a stationery company together, plan to launch a collection inspired by Leah's experience, focusing on sympathy and thank you cards, and ones that simply tell someone how much they mean to you.
"I think sometimes we don't really get to say those things to people and it was amazing to have so many people reach out to me and tell me that they love me and I think we often reserve those things for after people die, which is so disappointing," Nixon said. "We really believe that it's important to write those things and share those feelings with people."
Nixon hopes to buy a racing chair so she can get back into a sport that's similar to running, and is looking forward to marrying her fiance Kelsey Fitzgerald in July.
She said she was afraid to commit when Fitzgerald asked her to marry him a few years ago.
"In the ICU I realized that he was the exact right person to go through all of this with me and that I didn't' want to do it without him," she said. "I asked him if he'd marry me and he said 'of course.'"
After her presentation to the students, she answered their questions about her injury, recovery and artwork. Questions included how did she learn to draw, how much does she sell her art for, what does she remember about the accident (nothing) and whom does she admire (her sister and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Army veteran, double amputee and the first senator to give birth in office).
It was Nixon's first time speaking about her accident in public and she wasn't sure if it would make sense to young kids. But she says the event went well and she hopes to do more.
"I hope that kids can kind of relate to (my journey) with setting goals in school, academically or in sports," she said.