STANTON — It was in 2003, between her junior and senior years at Pensacola Christian College, that Emily Van Kleek’s life would forever change.
That change hinged on a few, seemingly unrelated, elements: The clay-like dirt common to Pensacola, Fla., a heavy rainfall the previous evening and the convertible Emily was driving to her summer job.
“The water and dirt had collected in the road and formed a spot that was almost like black ice,” Emily explains. “When I hit it, the car swerved into the median and flipped over three times. I don’t know how I stayed in my seat, but I did.”
The next thing Emily knew, she was strapped to a gurney, being wheeled into a hospital. Below her waist there was no sensation, no movement. The doctors explained her spine was crushed in several places. For the rest of her life, Emily would view the world from a wheelchair.
“I guess I was just kind of in shock,” Emily says. “I had just gotten engaged in April and this was May. And now I couldn’t feel the lower half of my body.”
Her fiancé, Michael Van Kleek, supported Emily every step of the way. Although they had not planned to get married until a year later, the wedding date was moved up and Emily walked the aisle six weeks later.
She didn’t walk, exactly … Emily approached the altar holding her father’s arm, perched atop a chair carried by her three brothers and a family friend. Nearly 10 years and two children later, the couple is going strong in Stanton, a testament to the commitment that has carried them through the many challenges life has thrown their way.
“It’s kind of funny in a way,” Emily says. “When we were in college, just before the accident, we were talking about what true love is; you know, like college kids do. And Mike said love was being willing to push your spouse around in a wheelchair for the rest of your life. That was his example. When it actually happened, we were both like, ‘Well…’”
Emily’s attitude from the start has been one of positive determination — determination to make the best of the cards that were dealt, to not let her paralysis prevent her from living the life she intended to live.
“I woke up and realized I was going to be paralyzed, that this is going to be my life,” Emily says. “That’s just reality. I figured if I’m going to be in a chair I may as well do it well and learn how to live, how to make the most of my life, regardless.”
This in no way indicates meek acquiescence on Emily’s part, however. She’s not the type to throw in the towel. In the weeks immediately following her accident, Emily and her father, Gary Fisher, spent countless hours researching new treatments and possible cures. But in the end, both had to face facts.
“There was a lot of talk in the beginning about experimental surgeries and so on,” Emily says. “But it soon became obvious that anything really viable was at least a decade away.”
Now that decade has passed. And something “viable” is indeed available, in Turkey, of all places.
Researchers there have developed a device that can get paraplegics like Emily out of the chair and upright again. The Robotic Mobility Device (RMD), created by AMS Mekatronic in Istanbul, may not be as good as walking on your own two feet, but it’s close. Real close.
The RMD can be operated remotely. With the push of a button, the operator can back it right up to his or her bed in the morning.
Reminiscent of something from a movie in which actress Sigourney Weaver battles space aliens, the device lifts the operator into an upright position from which he or she may move about with nearly the efficiency of a walking person.
As anyone confined to a wheelchair could attest, this level of mobility opens up whole new worlds for paraplegics.
“In my chair everything is a challenge,” Emily says. “I struggle with corners and taking care of my kids. Cleaning is always a hassle. Anything on the floor is too low and anything above the lowest shelf is too high. I can’t use the upper cabinets in the kitchen and every doorway has to be 33 inches or wider; narrow doorways are really frustrating.”
The burns she frequently gets while trying to cook on a stove built for a person with full use of her legs are frustrating as well. So are the times she accidentally tips her chair and must right it and get reseated, using only her arms.
Although she relates all this with a smile, laugh and a shrug — it’s just a part of her life, after all — it is easy to hear the excitement in her voice when the conversation turns to the RMD.
“You can use it inside or outside,” she says. “I spend a lot of time outdoors with the kids. It would be great to be able to go for a walk with them.”
It’s all the little things, the everyday things, the things most of us take for granted, that make the RMD a life-changer for Emily.
But, as with so many things, it comes down to money. RMD-like technology does not come cheap.
The unit she needs to regain her “standing” — to coin a phrase — runs in the neighborhood of $20,000, money Emily and Mike can’t raise on their own; not while raising two children. To make matters even more difficult, Mike, who works in the seasonal asphalt industry, was recently laid off.
Money is tight.
Enter Michael’s aunt, Lesa Schmidt of Edmore. In recent weeks, Lesa has spearheaded fundraising efforts with the hope of eventually purchasing an RMD for Emily.
“The new technology would enable her to go from a seated position to standing at will,” Lesa says. “She would be able to use her cupboards, get things off the shelves, go to the grocery store. Also, the health benefits are numerous.”
Lesa first became aware of the RMD when one of Emily’s friends posted a video of the device on Facebook.
“We thought, ‘How cool,’” Lesa says. “We watched that video over and over. It is amazing to us what it will do. People don’t realize how important it is for paraplegics to stand occasionally for health reasons. For years, Emily’s pretty much been sitting or laying down.”
So far, Lesa’s fundraising efforts have been confined primarily to a Facebook auction page (RMD4Em) and a few calls and emails to family members. To date, just over $2,300 has been raised, so there’s a long way to go before Lesa and her fellow volunteers attain that $20,000 mark. Other family and friends also have been doing their part to raise funds.
“We’ve had no big events yet, we’re just starting out,” Lesa says. “The Facebook page now has about 900 members and mostly we’re soliciting funds from that. We’re just getting off the ground and it’s mostly just people doing personal stuff like bake sales and garage sales.”
Lesa adds she wants to set up some larger fundraising events, but she’s unfamiliar with just how to go about it.
“Honestly, I just don’t really know what I’m doing,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of suggestions, but haven’t done anything really big yet.”
Lesa is hoping some of the people that have come up with money-making ideas will step forward and help with the organization of those events.
If that happens, she says, it may not be that long before Emily will be able to say goodbye to life in the chair and — for the first time in over 10 years — take her kids for a walk.