Sometimes life isn't fair. Taryn Schaaf knows that as well as anyone. Her brother, Trent, was in a car accident six years ago. He survived, but with a traumatic brain injury.
Three years later, Taryn was in an accident of her own. It was Sept. 11, 2009, some time after midnight. She and her friends were in an ATV, heading back to their campsite in Fort Madison, Iowa, after spending the night at a rodeo, at a concert and then dancing. The driver took a detour over an 80-foot ravine he didn't see. Seven people walked away with nothing more than a bruise, or a cut here and there.
Her lungs had collapsed and she couldn't move. She remembers only parts of the accident.
“They think (the ATV) ran me over,” said Schaaf, now 27.
She suffered a spinal cord injury.
“They never said I was paralyzed,” she said, but “the chance of being able to walk, it's not there.”
She was shocked but stayed positive. She'd done it before.
“(My brother's) accident helped me with mine. I knew what to expect,” she said in the lobby of QLI (Quality Living Inc.). QLI, near 72nd Street and Sorensen Parkway in Omaha, is a rehabilitation center that specializes in brain and spinal cord injuries in young adults. She does physical therapy there three times a week.
Schaaf, who lives in Omaha, volunteers at QLI, too, motivating others who have been in similar accidents. She hopes to turn helping others into a career. She's studying to be a counselor at Iowa Western Community College and will transfer to the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the fall.
“I just want to be able to help someone else in this same situation,” she said.
Schaaf keeps a gratitude journal to remind herself that “things aren't so bad” and introduced the idea to her QLI group. They write down what they're thankful for, such as their family, physical therapists, the freedom to drive and even wiggle their fingers.
“I enjoy the little things,” she said.
After the accident, Schaaf was in a coma for a week and heavily sedated for almost a month. At first, she couldn't turn the pages in a book or do her own makeup, but “there was never an 'I can't' growing up,” she said.
It's that attitude that pushes her during physical therapy. She has since regained control of her arms and partial control of her hands, and with it, more independence. She lifts weights to build her upper-body strength and works on her balance with weight benches and a standing frame.
She's more spontaneous now that she has learned to get around and is more comfortable asking for help when she needs it.
Eight months after the accident, she took a road trip with her cousin to meet friends in Wyoming for a rodeo.
“It made me realize that I can still do things I used to do,” she said. “My wheelchair isn't going to hold me back.”
She kayaked in June and rode a jet ski this summer. She's discovering a new normal.
“Where there's a will, there's a way,” she said. “It put things into perspective. Life really is short.”
Contact the writer: