© Katie Lozancich

I'm Dianne Vitkus and this is my story

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About two years ago my life took a complete 180. Within seconds my life as I knew it was over.

I had been working a 4-day stretch of 12-hour shifts as a surgical physician assistant in Syracuse, New York. This was my dream job. Inspired by my uncle, an oral surgeon, my job was to assist my attendings in the operating room and monitor their patient’s post-operative care. After work, I came home to my apartment and sunk into my couch. As I looked out the window and saw the beautiful sunset, I couldn’t help but want to get a better view and enjoy the warm summer heat. I grabbed a blanket and climbed the ladder to the roof. I laid up there watching the sun escape beneath the horizon and then as it darkened, admiring the stars take over the sky. As I tried to descend the 12-foot ladder, I slipped and landed on the hard cement floor beneath me.

Strong family ties: Dianne with her parents in Boston. (Malakhai Pearson)
Strong family ties: Dianne with her parents in Boston.  © Malakhai Pearson

As I laid on my back, I remember feeling immediate pain in my right shoulder just naively thinking, “that’s gonna hurt in the morning.” Strangely enough nothing else hurt and as I went to sit up, I quickly learned why ... I could not feel or move anything from my chest down.I knew in that exact moment my life was never going to be the same.

I had 30 minutes to prepare myself for the chaos and uncertainty that was to come before someone found me and called 911. 30 minutes to reminisce my 28 years of life. 30 minutes to think about how relatively privileged my life had been up until this point. Did I take advantage of it? Would I have done anything differently? I had just settled into my job after years of schooling. Was it all for nothing? Will I ever operate again? To my surprise, even with all these racing thoughts, I remained relatively calm. I knew the control and freedom I once had over my life was gone, I would be wasting precious energy to put up a fight or panic. All I could do was take a deep breath and wait for everything to change.

Before the accident: Dianne explores the nature of Arizona. (Privat)
Before the accident: Dianne explores the nature of Arizona.  © Privat

So much has happened since then. I had fractured my right scapula and punctured a lung during the fall. Apart from the emergent surgery I had to fix my broken neck, I needed chest tubes, a feeding tube, respirator, and later a tracheotomy. I spent 4 weeks in the Intensive Care Unit in Syracuse. I never thought I wouldn’t make it out on the other side, that’s just my stubborn nature I suppose, but looking back I realize that every day I was fighting for my life. Once I was stable, I was transferred to Spaulding Rehabilitation Center in Boston and I spent 2 months in intensive inpatient rehab.

Dianne enjoys spending time with her friends, Carolyn and Kristin. (Malakhai Pearson)
Dianne enjoys spending time with her friends, Carolyn and Kristin.  © Malakhai Pearson

Having been diagnosed with type one diabetes at 18 years old, I thought I was well-versed in adversity. But I quickly learned that adversity is something you overcome, struggle is something you endure. I’m going to struggle every single day, that’s not a choice I have. But I do have the choice to struggle with love and laughter or resentment and misery. When you struggle with love and laughter, days are a little less hard.

This mindset of optimism and perseverance grew through competition and sport. I grew up as a three-sport athlete and then went on to play collegiate lacrosse at the D1 level. After college I stayed active, joining a High Intensity Interval Training gym, running a marathon, biking and hiking regularly. I definitely have had many obstacles throughout these athletic endeavors, but I have a zest for life that drives me forward regardless of temporary setbacks.

An inspiring young woman: Dianne is Wings for Life Ambassador. (Katie Lozancich)
An inspiring young woman: Dianne is Wings for Life Ambassador.  © Katie Lozancich

Not to mention I have a whole community I know has my back. And that I think might be my biggest saving grace. I may not be able to walk but they will help me stand. As Chris Norton said, “happiness isn’t measured by steps. It’s measured by the relationships you form and the relationships you keep”. It was the drive to repay the kindness that these relationships have shown towards me that has propelled me through my recovery. Even complete strangers have not only supported me but, also my family, by sending cards, flowers and balloons, donating money, preparing meals, and the list goes on.

Hope for renewed feeling and movement below my injury level slowly faded from my immediate focus as the months passed by. I didn’t want to set my expectations too high just to be let down. But as I learned about Wings for Life and all the successful research and clinical trials they have funded, aimed at healing the injured spinal cord, my hope was restored. As I learned about their mission to find a cure, I knew I wanted to get involved. I will walk again one day, and that comeback will be that much more epic because of the love, laughter, and happiness I still achieve in this chair.

Our mission is to find a cure for spinal cord injury. We fund world-class scientific research and clinical trials around the globe aimed at healing the injured spinal cord. Please support us in achieving our goal.

Dianne's friends provided powerful support after the accident. (Malakhai Pearson)
Dianne's friends provided powerful support after the accident.  © Malakhai Pearson