Ashlee Lundvall may be, by definition, “disabled”. But she has managed to do more in her life, reach more people with her message, and even dream “bigger” than most able-bodied people. Why? Because she has drive, guts, and the raw desire to prove that she can make a difference. She does it for the love of spreading joy, as a mission to communicate to the world that though she was thrown the curve ball of paralysis after a tragic accident, she is still very much a player in the game. She does it to inspire others with disabilities that they, too, can live as she calls it, “A Redefined Life”. Beautiful in character and appearance, Ashlee was crowned Miss Wheelchair USA in 2015. Determined not to allow her paralysis to hinder her love and participation in the Great Outdoors, she can be found hunting, fly fishing, and exploring the mountains of her beloved Wyoming in her all-terrain Action Track wheelchair. She recently published her first book, aptly called “A Redefined Life”, and is a member of the renowned Renee Rongen’s speaking team. She constantly advocates for others with disabilities to enable accessible hunts as well as everyday ADA compliance issues. Here, Ashlee shares her personal story of triumph in the face of adversity with TAWS. More information about Ashlee, including a link to order her book, can be found at www.ashleelundvall.com.
TAWS: “Tell me a little about yourself, and your background?”
“I was born and raised in Indiana. I have always loved the outdoors and athletics. Played four sports year round. Very competitive and driven. I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon. Always liked puzzles, putting things back together, medical stuff, and helping people. I was always taller than everyone else at school, was a big nerd, clumsy, never quite felt like I belonged, & that I wasn’t quite at home in Indy. Found myself in the early 90’s on a family vacation to Wyoming. Fell in love with the mountains, horses, cowboys, and all of the outdoor recreation opportunities. I knew that Wyoming was where I belonged.
TAWS: “Tell me about the accident: What was the day like? What were your plans that day? What injuries did you sustain as a result?”
“When I learned of the opportunity to attend a camp at a ranch in Wyoming, I started saving my money right away. Those two weeks were an amazing experience for a fifteen year old girl, and I vowed to return at the next possible opportunity. The following year, the camp was opened for a three-week session, and I made my reservations. On Monday, August 2, 1999, I woke up early to complete my chores before leaving for a backpacking trip in the mountains. It was another beautiful day in Wyoming- sunny and clear. I walked down to the corrals, climbed up onto the hay rack, and began pitching feed to the livestock below. As I broke open a bale of hay, a flake fell to the side. I leaned over to grab the piece with my pitchfork and lost my balance. As I began to fall, my last thought was, “Throw the pitchfork.”
The next thing I remember is waking up. I tried to get up and could not move the lower half of my body. I assumed a bale of hay had fallen on me, or that one of the steers had gotten loose and was standing on me. Then I noticed the pitchfork handle under my back. Although I had flung the pitchfork, I had hit my head on the way down and had been catapulted out onto the wooden handle. I was not impaled, but the pitchfork had still done its damage. I noticed a strange tingling in my legs and back, with no pain, but with no movement or control. I began to yell for help.
The next hours and days are a blur to me. I was taken to the local hospital in Cody and stabilized before being airlifted to another facility in Montana. My parents, at home in Indiana, were notified of my accident and began to make arrangements to meet me in Montana. They were told that I had broken my back and that I was experiencing some paralysis. The pitchfork had shattered my T-12 vertebrae. This burst fracture had blown fragments of bone out into surrounding tissue and badly smashed my spinal cord. It was a complete SCI (spinal cord injury), meaning I don’t have any sensation or voluntary movement below my injury site. My first two surgeries removed the fragments and rebuilt my vertebrae with pieces of bone taken from grafts of my hip and pelvis. Metal plates and screws were inserted to stabilize the injury site.
My paralysis began right below my belly button and circled around to my back. A wheelchair was introduced and I began learning how much I would rely on a hunk of metal for survival. I remained in Montana for therapy for the next month, and then returned to Indiana to continue therapy and attempt to adjust to my new life.”
TAWS: “Tell me about your recovery—how long has it been since the accident? How difficult was it for you to handle emotionally and physically?”
“It has been almost 17 years since my accident. My 2016 anniversary will mark the official date when I have been in a wheelchair longer than I was able-bodied. My therapy in Montana was very positive. I was the youngest person on the rehab floor by decades, and the nurses made me feel like a celebrity. I had tons of visitors, and my room was filled with flowers, stuffed animals, and cards from family,friends, and total strangers who had heard about my story. I worked hard to impress my therapists with my competitive spirit and never quit attitude. It made it easy to think of my injury as a short-term problem- like a dream almost. If Montana was that dream, my return to Indy was a nightmare. This is when the truth really finally set in- that this was not a temporary problem, but that I was going to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. Seeing familiar surroundings drove this truth home- everything else was the same, but I was forever changed. My attitude tanked, and I went through rounds of depression, anger, and bitterness. My physical condition declined, and my therapy progression was stagnant. I became withdrawn, and I didn’t care about the toll my decline was taking on my family. My turning point was finally seeing how my attitude was affecting my parents. I was being so selfish thinking that I was the only person hurting. I will never forget the morning that I finally saw my Dad break down, and the light went on in my mind. I decided then and there that no matter how hard it got- I would never forget that my attitude and actions didn’t just affect my own life and future, but the lives of those around me. This conscious choice to improve my attitude started a long hard road to my life today. A life I wouldn’t trade for the world. I still wake up every morning and choose to either have a positive attitude and outlook on my life, or a negative one. This choice is never easy, but I believe everyone, no matter what they are going through, can choose joy.”
TAWS: “It must be frightening to think of “what could have been”….has your perspective on goals/life/friendships etc changed?”
“The funny thing is, the pitchfork saved my life. If it hadn’t hit the ground a split second before I did, and it wasn’t the first point of contact before I hit the ground, I could have had a higher injury, and could have died. The pitchfork took the blunt of the force of the impact and focused it at T-12 instead of breaking my neck. I’m so glad I was spared, because I love my life and I know I have a purpose. This second chance encourages me to never take anything for granted, and to live life in an extreme way. I love big, and reach for seemingly impossible goals. I am not a quitter, and I will always find a way to make something happen, for myself or someone else. It has made me an encourager, a fighter, an educator, and an advocate. I push myself past typical limits and I look for an adrenaline rush at every turn. I love people and I love helping people, and I consider myself to be a compassionate person. On the flip side, I don’t have a lot of patience for people who wallow in self pity, or choose to be constantly negative. You can always find someone who has it worse than you. Life is too short and beautiful to waste it feeling sorry for yourself and your situation. A redefined life may not be what you had planned, but it can be amazing and full.
TAWS: “What has been your biggest obstacle since your accident and how have you handled it?”
“One of the biggest obstacles I have faced since my accident is a lack of accessibility in public places. I am the type of person that finds a way to make things work, no matter how much Mossy Oak duct tape it takes, and I don’t go around looking for obstacles, but they pop up everywhere nonetheless. The more I travel, the more I see that this is a large problem. I have learned that my “make it work regardless” attitude gets me through most of the time, but that I’m not doing anyone after me any favors by making it work instead of fixing the problem to begin with. The ADA celebrated its 25th anniversary in July of 2015, and although we have made improvements, we still have a long way to go. Most people have good intentions, and they are open to education if you approach them with the right attitude. I am doing more education and consulting all the time to help business owners and organizations obey the letter of the law as well as the spirit of the law, in order to make things more friendly and accessible.”
TAWS: “Have you noticed or have had negative experiences in regards to others’ treatment of you because of your disability?”
“The most negative experiences I have ever had are interactions with people who make assumptions about me because of my wheelchair. They speak loudly and slowly, assuming I am deaf or living with a mental disability. Or they ignore me altogether and talk to me “through” the person with me. I lost count of the people who would pat me on the head, their eyes filled sympathy at my poor condition. It would be easy to get angry about this and lash out, but instead, I’ve chosen to see the humor in people’s ignorance and assume they have good intentions, while combating it with education. When I speak, I often end with what I call “Disability 101″ to educate others.”
TAWS: “Tell me about your experience in the Miss Wheelchair USA pageant?”
“After serious support and encouragement from family and friends, and quite a bit of research, I discovered that this wasn’t your typical beauty pageant. While they recognized that women with disabilities are beautiful, they focused more on empowering women and giving them a national platform to talk about they found important, as well as learning how to advocate for themselves and others. Instead of a swimsuit portion and tearful speeches about world peace, women in wheelchairs from all over the country would be given a national audience to share what they were passionate about. Our platform would be our talent. After winning the Wyoming state title in October (and I’m still not sure that I wasn’t the only applicant), I started raising money to head to Stow, Ohio, in July. I am passionate about accessible outdoor activities, and coming from a hunting group that is entirely dominated by males, the thought of inspiring interest in hunting in even one of these ladies made me very excited. The week flew by, and I quickly realized that this was different than other competitions. Although I was incredibly honored to win Ms. Wheelchair USA at the finale Saturday night, as well as the Ms. Photogenic Award, one of the biggest highlights of my evening was being presented with the Ms. Congeniality Award. This trophy was voted on by the other contestants, their companions, and the staff and volunteers for the event. This award will always be a special memory because I went to the competition never knowing that I would leave with such an outstanding group of new friends, both those in wheelchairs and those who are able-bodied. And I was able to stir some interest in hunting and other accessible outdoor recreation with not just one, but several of the ladies! That, to me, was icing on the cake.
TAWS: “Who, if anyone, do you find particularly inspirational?”
“The people that inspire me are those who choose to overcome obstacles, whatever they may be, with a positive attitude. Those obstacles can be seemingly minor to overwhelming and life-altering. To me, it’s all about your attitude and what you learn on the journey.
TAWS: “How does it feel to know that you, yourself, are an inspiration to others?”
“This is actually a little awkward for me, because I never know how to respond when people say I inspire them. I am thankful I have been given the opportunity to encourage people to push themselves, never give up, and maintain and share a positive attitude, but it is actually something I am constantly trying to adjust to. I just hope it inspires them enough to spread the message of hope, courage, and helping others however we can.”
TAWS: “What was your motivation to write your book?”
“I enjoy writing, and I found it to be therapeutic along my journey. I am very open and honest about my life experiences, and I find that people appreciate that transparency. I am an educator at heart, and I like to share information with others. People were constantly asking me to write a book, and I liked the idea of helping others in this way, since I didn’t really have anyone else in a similar circumstance to talk to when my accident happened. Before I knew it, I had a lot of bits and pieces of my story in some kind of text. When I joined Renee Rongen’s speaking team in January of 2015, she told me my first task was to finish my book. Having a hard deadline was exactly what I needed. Although my story is far from over, I am glad I was able to get out what has happened so far and the lessons I have learned along the way from my”Pitchfork Moment”.”
TAWS: “What are your future goals and/or aspirations?”
“I dream huge. I have been enjoying living an active, outdoor lifestyle for years, but making it my actual profession has been a goal for a long time. I want to travel with my husband and daughter, speaking and educating about accessible outdoor recreation and how to encourage others to get outdoors. I want to create my own line of camo clothing that is made specifically for those with different abilities and physical needs, as well as designing other hunting equipment. I want to host a TV show that visits various hunts around the country showcasing people hunting with disabilities and the adaptive equipment they use, as well as organizations that are helping them enjoy hunting. I want to see my book in rehab hospitals across the country, helping others choose to live a redefined life. That’s it for 2016!”