After accident, first-year settles into Smith
Published: Thursday, October 8, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 17:05
A positive attitude is magnetic coming from anyone, but there is something special about first-year Clara Gardner's presence. Given the recent events that changed the course of her life, her radiance and easy laughter mesmerized me during our meeting in the Campus Center last week.One year ago, a drunk driver hit Gardner as she unpacked a car from a school trip to Ecuador, and doctors were forced to amputate both legs above the knee. For the past 11 months, her previously "normal" life has been replaced by a flurry of doctors' appointments, legal proceedings and prosthetics' fittings on top of her typical high school responsibilities.
"I've changed, but I'm also very much the same. I'm generally pretty optimistic," she said. "That helps!"
Gardner grew up in Northampton and attended high school less than a half mile down the road. Given the new challenges she faced because of the accident, it made sense to come to Smith in order to stay close to home.
But Gardner does not feel stuck in her hometown and enjoys new experiences every day. "Smith was not a big part of my high-school experience. Unless you take classes here, you don't really see the back side [of the college]."
One major difference about being at Smith is that people don't know Clara's story. "In high school, people were good about the accident. It affected everyone, because they knew me before and after," she said.
Although such familiarity is absent on campus, Smith is stepping up in many regards. "The disabilities office is awesome. They are really really, good here," she said.
People in wheelchairs face obstacles in everyday transportation that able-bodied people rarely think about. "Even a bumpy sidewalk can be so frustrating," she said.
Familiar sidewalks have added to Gardner's decision to stay in Northampton for college. "I know the curb cuts so well," she said, laughing. "I remember my brother said to me when we were walking downtown, 'Oh my god, Clara, you know every single bump!' "
Gardner did not lose her sense of adventure along with her legs. "The other day, I had class at 10:30 and I left my house, Haven, at 10:32. And I got to the top floor of Bass at 10:37."
Gardner has a semi-powered wheelchair, meaning that by slightly pushing on the wheel, She activates a motor, pushing the chair forward.
Although advanced technology makes life easier for Gardner, she hopes to spend much of her future on her feet. "I'm trying to focus my free time on prosthetic training. I could choose to be in a wheelchair forever, but I won't."
The training for prosthetics is intense and requires commitment and diligence. "It's pretty much like doing a sport," she said. "It's not a scheduled thing, so I have to make time every day."
According to Gardner, most people begin using prosthetics when they are younger than the college demographic. Many are born missing limbs and so learn to use prosthetics at an early age. The elderly make up a large portion of amputees, having lost limbs due to diseases like diabetes. Older folks don't typically learn to use prosthetics because, as Gardner matter-of-factly pointed out, "If you're 70, there's not much point."
Gardner is making progress toward a more "normal" life, but it is undeniable that her body and perspective have changed. Before the accident, topics like drunk driving and the accessibility of a campus for disabled students weren't foremost on her mind. In addition, the legal proceedings that took place following the accident taught Clara first-hand about U.S. law.
Gardner has felt the injustices of US drunk driving penalties. The man who hit Gardner will be in jail for three to five years, but he will get his license back upon completion of his sentence. "Underage drunk driving. Suspended license. Left the scene of the crime," Gardner listed the offenses, shaking her head. "To have a Breathalyzer put onto his wheel, he'd have to go out and do it again."
Despite the disappointment, Gardner chooses to be motivated rather than defeated. "My life goal is to reform U.S. law because the drunk driving laws are too lenient," she said.
After my meeting with her last week, it's clear that if anyone can do it, it's Clara Gardner.