More tough times lie ahead, but Leah Nixon has made friends with change. She’ll be all right.
We could all take a lesson.
Work hard, take small steps and lean on others, says the remarkable 30-year-old Rapid City woman who looks forward to getting married, advancing her art, promoting her stationery business and getting back outdoors.
Not everyone would be able to face so directly forward after being pinned beneath a forklift, losing a leg and becoming paralyzed below the armpits.
"You can do hard things. Who believes that?" Leah asked an audience of Rapid City fourth- and fifth-grade students last week. Who wouldn’t believe it after hearing her story?
The free-spirited daughter of Bob and Glenda Nixon of Rapid City had studied art at Washington University in St. Louis. Strong legs had propelled her across rugged Black Hills trails and strong arms across blue Kentucky waters. She had built a tiny trendy home and partnered with her sister Grace — also a partner in humor and life — to sell greeting cards and custom stationery under the name of Tiny and Snail.
And then, as often happens, change crashed onto her. It had rained a lot on the morning of Aug. 14, 2018. Leah was putting up rafters for a Black Hills Habitat for Humanity home on Lemmon Avenue when falling steel crushed her to the ground.
She remembers nothing of it. Survival focused her afterward. Leah spent 29 days in an intensive care unit, then three months at Craig Hospital in Denver, then three more months at QLI in Omaha. Leah re-learned how to dress, go to the bathroom, cook by herself and drive a modified car. It was never a solo journey, but only Leah could drive it.
Nine months after facing death, after losing much of what had been her life, Leah visited Wilson Elementary to share her bright future.
"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," she said.
"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."
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Focused on architecture and construction before the accident, Leah has returned to earlier passions of painting and illustration.
"Paintings that I've been wanting to do for probably five years, I'm actually getting to do them now."
Leah and Grace now plan to launch a line of stationery centered on expressions of sympathy and loving gratitude — things Leah knows firsthand.
"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."
In July, Nixon will marry longtime friend and kindred outdoorsman Kelsey Fitzgerald.
"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.'"
Returning to independence had once seemed a fantasy to her.
“As time’s gone on … things that seemed impossible before are now possible,” Leah said.
Face forward. Work hard. Small steps. And lean on supporters.
Thank you, Leah.