Teen returns to school after life-changing accident
Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Lina Nguyen was paralyzed in a car accident shortly before her junior year of high school. After a year and a half she's now returning to school at Granger High School to finish her senior year and graduate with her class. Lina rolls to her first class and goes past the Granger High School Lancer and athletics trophy case. Her first day back both her aides Cassandra Scott, left, and Jennie Figueroa accompanied her to learn the routines. Normally she will have one aide throughout the day.
West Valley City • Lina Nguyen’s life will be forever divided into two parts: before and after.
Before, she was an independent, active teenager. She relished going to school to see her friends and loved playing basketball and volleyball at Granger High School. She spent most of her free time working as a waitress to help her family pay the bills.
After an accident in 2009, she was paralyzed from the chest down and able to fully move only her neck and head. She was a passenger in her friend’s car when it rolled in Parleys Canyon. Lina had to learn to live a life of total dependence on others, an existence she calls “hurtful.”
But Lina kept going, conquering one goal at a time: getting off her feeding tube, re-learning how to talk and how to help control an electric wheelchair.
Now, she’s determined to conquer another goal — graduating on time from high school with her class. After a year and a half away from school, the 18-year-old returned to Granger High for her senior year on Monday, her body impaired but her drive to succeed perfectly intact.
“I just needed to finish what I started,” said Lina, a petite, gregarious teen with a broad, quick smile. “I need to go to school because getting an education is what I need to do right now to help myself. If I quit school, that’s quitting on myself.”
After the accident, Lina kept up with her school work at South Davis Community Hospital, working with a teacher an hour or two every day. She might have spent the rest of her senior year working from the hospital bed that’s now stationed in her family’s living room.
But she didn’t want to miss her senior year, a year she had always imagined as full of fun and adventure. So she decided to face her fears and return to the hallways of her old high school, a decision her family supported.
“It’s better for her to go to school, for her to clear her mind” said Lina’s mother, Hoa Tran, in Vietnamese. Tran and her daughter have become closer since she began taking care of Lina after the accident. “When she’s at home, she thinks too much.”
Lina’s best friend, senior Tina Tran, encouraged Lina not to worry.
“It’s really great that she’s actually overcome her fear of being judged,” Tina Tran said. “It’s like Lina to get back on her feet and try again. She’s always been determined like that.”
But Lina knew her decision wouldn’t be an easy one to carry out. For months, a team of educators and Granite workers have been preparing for her return.
District specialists trained aides to take turns staying with her all day to help her take notes, turn pages, open doors and eat lunch. A custodian worked to make sure all the school’s automatic doors opened correctly. A school bus with a lift will usher her to Granger and back each day. And a team of district therapists are setting up a laptop that will allow her to dictate notes and papers. She’ll control the laptop’s mouse by moving her head.
But beyond the practicalities of her return, she worried about how her classmates will react to her.
“I’m scared,” Lina said several days before her return. “What if people don’t see past the wheelchair, and think, ‘Oh, she’s a girl in a wheelchair. Don’t talk to her. She’s weird.’ I don’t want people to see the wheelchair. I want people to see me.”
Lina’s anxiety only intensified as her return drew nearer. On Monday morning, she nervously joked with the team assigned to helping her: a school nurse, a district physical therapist, two aides and her counselor. The pack surrounded her in an empty school hallway working out the logistics of the day to come.
“Oh, I don’t want to be here. I’m so nervous,” she said several times with a smile and uncomfortable laugh. She asked an aide to apply her lip gloss and accepted compliments on her turquoise-colored nails, painted with intricate flowers.
Within an hour, she moved through the hallways with her aides, and several teens excitedly greeted her.
“Hi Lina! You look cute!” one girl shouted.
“Hi Lina!” another girl exclaimed.
“Oh, [expletive],” a boy said, stopping in his tracks to flash her a smile. “Lina!”
She smiled back.
But others simply glanced at Lina before walking by.
“I see people I used to know and stuff in the hallway,” Lina told one of her aides. “They’re scared to say hi.”
But after her long absence, she was eager to get to class. When science teacher Henry Tanner asked his zoology class to explain what Golgi apparatus do, no one answered — except Lina.
She grew bolder still in her next class, public speaking. Teacher Marilyn Miller began the period by introducing Lina and her aides. Without being prompted, Lina made her own announcement to the class after Miller finished speaking.
“And don’t hesitate to ask any questions if you guys are curious or anything,” Lina said in a loud, clear voice. “I’m the same. Just because I’m paralyzed doesn’t mean I’m different. You guys don’t have to be scared of me. I just wanted to get that out in the open.”
She then dove into the class assignment for the day, interviewing a classmate and then answering that classmate’s questions in order to give speeches about one another in front of the group.
The prepared list of what would normally be basic questions proved a reminder of the line between “before” and “after” in Lina’s life.
“What are the activities you like?” her partner asked.
“Before, I used to play basketball and volleyball,” Lina answered. “If I weren’t paralyzed, I would still be playing them.”
“What are your career plans?” her partner asked.
“Before my accident, I wanted to go graduate school and become a nurse,” Lina answered. “But ever since I got in my accident, I either want to be a motivational speaker or work in medicine.”
“Your ultimate goal?” her partner asked.
Lina paused for a moment.
More than half of her first day at school was already behind her.
“My ultimate goal is to have a successful life, finish high school and college and prove to the world that even though I’m paralyzed, it does not mean I cannot succeed,” Lina replied.
It wasn’t the answer she would have given before the accident. But it was an answer that showed she wouldn’t give up after it.
© 2011 The Salt Lake Tribune