Written by: Alison Chambers (@dtlvblogger)
The first time I saw Tiera McQuater was in a Chair Yoga class at Downtown Yoga and Wellness Co-op. I was nervous enough just being in this new role as documentarian for the Co-op and sitting in on a class, taking notes and photographing the session. I felt inadequate and awkward having never met an individual with quadriplegia before. I didn’t want to offend her by saying the wrong thing. Instead, I opted to say nothing to her on that day.
But I wanted to know her story. As we sat in the class together, I could see that she would move her head during certain poses. I did not know she could move her arms and hands; on that day she was bundled up in a blanket and a knit cap covered her head.
As humans, I think it is common to make some assumptions about an individual based on their appearance and one’s own past experience or acquired knowledge. I knew little about quadriplegia. Christopher Reeve was thrown off his horse and became a quadriplegic and was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. That was about the extent of my “knowledge” to date. Later, as I spoke with my son about this project and the lady in the wheelchair, I said I need to know how to talk to her without insulting her with an insensitive remark or question. And then, the Googler came to mind. I pored over articles by spinal cord injury survivors, their spouses, and I purchased Christopher Reeve’s second book, Nothing is Impossible, and read half of it on my Kindle by the time I met her for our interview. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of positivity expressed by the survivors, their spouses, and most of all, Reeve’s story. He wrote two books, directed a movie, and was an advocate for spinal cord injury research and stem cell technology following his spinal cord injury. Within a relatively short amount of time, my perspective had completely changed from one of sadness and pity to one of hope and possibility.
In March 2018, Tiera McQuater was a successful real estate agent and single mother of then-11 year old daughter Nyla. Tiera and her dad were on their way to Utah for a fun little getaway that included a friend’s birthday party and some skiing. Then his car hit a patch of black ice; they slid around on the highway, eventually colliding with a big rig which caused the car to roll over and over some 14-16 times, eventually landing 200 feet down a ravine. When it all stopped, Tiera had sustained a complete spinal cord injury, meaning she had no sensation or function from the injury line down. Her neck was broken, affecting the C3-C5 vertebrates near the base of her neck. Injuries to the nerves and tissue in this area are the most severe of all spinal cord injuries because the higher up in the spine an injury occurs, the more damage that is caused to the central nervous system. She could not move to free herself from the car; she was hanging upside down still secured by her seat belt. Her dad had been knocked unconscious; when he awoke, he somehow managed to squeeze through the vehicle’s sunroof and climb barefoot with no coat up the 200′ ravine. He flagged down a passing pickup truck and the driver called 911. When her dad returned from flagging down help, he found her cell phone. The first thing she said was, “Daddy, I want to call my daughter and tell her I love her.” Tiera remembers that in spite of feeling that she was going to die from this accident, she was peaceful and calm. She told me that she was grateful for the life she had lived.
It took two hours for emergency personnel to be able to extract Tiera from the car and get her up the steep ravine because of the precarious nature of the situation. She was transported to a small hospital in Utah where she was evaluated, then Life Flighted to the University of Utah hospital. She underwent fusion surgery and bolts were inserted into her neck. She was dependent upon a ventilator, rendering her unable to eat, drink, or speak. She spent 3 weeks in their Intensive Care Unit.
After researching various spinal care injury facilities, the decision was made to move Tiera to Craig Hospital, a stellar rehabilitation hospital in Englewood, Colorado specializing in Spinal Cord injury and Traumatic Brain Injury rehabilitation. Tiera spent 3 months in their care, during which time she regained some sensation and movement in her arms and hands. Her days were grueling with physical therapy, occupational therapy, and recreational therapy; her care team consisted of at least 8-10 people, including nurses, a doctor, a nutritionist and a psychologist. While she had made strides in her recovery, she was rather afraid to return home without her “team”. Her family and friends have provided consistent support, often being with her daily during her regimen. She told me that her support system of family and friends has gotten her through this.
Of the many things she learned in therapy, Tiera can now operate her wheelchair with her right hand and is able to work on her cell phone and computer with an assistive technology mouth stick. She is able to stand with assistance. One of her biggest challenges was being able to sit up for a longer period of time without passing out due to low blood pressure. She told me her voice is softer and quieter now because she doesn’t have as much lung capacity to speak more forcefully. But she is a powerful speaker, no matter the volume. She has done public speaking appearances for spinal cord injury recovery since her accident. One of the most inspiring words she said to me in our time together was, “I’m a vessel for other people, to speak and be positive. The people in my life – it (this accident) brought them all together. It made them appreciate their lives more… I don’t know, now I just look at life differently.”
She was extremely excited to learn about the opening of Driven NeuroRecovery Center in downtown Las Vegas. It is here where she receives activity-based training, including but not limited to “FES” Functional Electrical Stimulation using a specially designed ergonomic bicycle which applies small electrical pulses to paralyzed muscles to restore or improve their function as she engages in either arm or leg cycling. Brandi, Driven’s Executive Director, and activity-based trainers Leon and Caleb assisted Tiera in getting set up on the FES bike as I sat and chatted with her. FES electrodes on sticky pads must be meticulously applied to her arms and back. Once properly adjusted, she was able to cycle her arms as we continued our conversation. “Everybody is always positive here, smiling, dancing, singing – even when I’m not in that mood and they’re that way, it’s good for my soul. Driven’s been amazing for me.” Indeed, both Leon and Caleb were funny and lighthearted as they worked to get her set up for the FES bike. I said to Tiera, “So it’s a full service facility – you get trainers and entertainers!”