Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas
Paralyzed Veteran Now a Marathoner
The National Veterans Wheelchair Games have given Army Veteran Candice Caesar a new social circle and extended family—but the inspiring part is what she’s had to overcome.
Caesar was stationed in Germany in 1999 when she was involved in a motor vehicle accident. The vehicle slid on black ice and crashed. A Soldier in the back seat, who was not wearing a seatbelt, flew forward and slammed into her, breaking several of her vertebrae. She also punctured a lung and sustained a traumatic brain injury.
She was paralyzed.
“I couldn’t move anything on my right side,” she said.
A German doctor fused her vertebrae but nicked her vocal cord in the process, leaving her barely able to speak for six years.
Doctors told her they didn’t think she would walk again.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I went straight into denial. And that is when I leaned on my faith and said, ‘I’m going to walk a marathon.’ I did not know that a marathon was 26.2 miles. That is just what came into my brain. You don’t know what you’re talking about. I just didn’t believe them.”
As she lay in bed, she lamented her lost military career. She was going to be a drill sergeant, get her commission, and become a physical therapist.
“I had a plan and now you’re telling me I can do none of these things?” Caesar said. “So, now you’re taking away my career and you’re telling me I can’t walk? Well, you’ve got to leave me something. I can’t have my Army career, but I can have movement over my body. And that’s what happened.”
That attitude, as powerful as it is, only works when it’s turned on, she said. The first time she walked, she took two steps and then it was back into the wheelchair.
“There was a lot of falling,” she said. “There was a lot of bleeding. There was a lot of crying. Some days I lay in bed and said, ‘God, why did this happen to me? I need to die. I can’t kill myself, but just let me die. Let me close my eyes and just die.’ I was in an awful place.”
She was desperate to get home to her two-year old son, whom she hadn’t seen since the accident. She begged doctors to discharge her. After approximately five weeks in the hospital, using a flat-bed crutch and a cane, she was able to walk enough to go home. She covered her right side in band-aids so her son would know not to touch her there. With communication an issue, as she could barely speak above a whisper, she used what was available.
“I blew whistles,” she said. “When I wanted him to stop, I blew once. When I wanted him to turn around, I blew twice. My kid was trained like a dog, basically. But that’s the best I could do.”
A speech therapist inspired her, working on her swallowing, her pitch, and her ability to project. She even suggested something at the time, which seemed unthinkable—a career change.
“She said, ‘You can be a speech pathologist.’ What are you talking about? I can’t remember anything! I can’t speak! I can’t hear! And the therapist told me, ‘I’m going to get you right.’”
When Caesar was medically retired from the Army in 2002, life was tough, with many nights spent in tears. However, she kept getting physically and mentally stronger, incorporating more and more muscles.
“When I left the Army, I was able to walk with a cane, with assistance, and some leg braces,” she said. “To walk I have to pick my hip and quad up and put it down. I’ve got a lot of movement. It’s still weak, but it’s movement.”
So much movement that she did what she assured her doctors in Germany that she would do—run/walk a marathon. So far, she’s done 17 marathons and 73 half marathons in 43 states. When her Houston VA doctor advised her to find other activities, as running was too tough on her body, Caesar joined Paralyzed Veterans of America Texas Chapter and discovered a slew of things she could do, to include Wheelchair Games.
“I had the best time with Wheelchair Games,” she said. “When I left (this year’s games in Louisville, KY), I had 20 new connections. I will never be alone again in another state. I didn’t understand the different activities and organizations that I could be a part of and learned all of that by going to Wheelchair Games and being hooked up with the Paralyzed Veterans of America. They just have no idea how they’ve changed my life.
Her favorite event at the games was using a hand cycle to do the 10K. There was a “killer hill” that she had to pass several times. That hill almost got the best of her, but she persevered and once she conquered it the first time, her confidence soared.
“When I passed somebody using his legs and I’m using my arms, that just gave me a little extra power,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh! I can beat people using their legs!’ For me, I was like, “Oh, my God, I’m passing him up!’ That gave me some extra motivation. I could have gone another 10K around the course, I had that much fun at Wheelchair Games.”
Caesar is determined to make these games an annual event, no matter what is going on in her busy life. Since the accident, she’s gotten two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree in speech pathology and currently works as a speech pathologist, working with autistic children. She continues to receive care for her spinal cord injury at the Houston VA Medical Center.
“I have to be at the Wheelchair Games,” she said. “I have people to hang out with, people to talk to, connections to make, and some rivals to beat.”