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For most high school graduates, taking a gap year before going to college involves travel abroad, volunteering and extended mission trips, or going to work. But Emma Bailey’s gap year has been a nonstop journey through physical therapy, unthinkable struggle and triumph and rebuilding her life.
“The whole thing’s been like a rollercoaster, not really knowing what the future’s going to be like. When everything first happened, I wasn’t even thinking about school. I didn’t think that would be a possibility,” Bailey said. “Now that I know I’m going to go, it’s taking a lot of stress off my shoulders.”
For Bailey, who will attend Meredith College in Raleigh starting this fall, attending graduation with her class last year at Southern Nash High School was an enormous victory. Less than two weeks before, on May 25, she was involved in a car crash a few miles from her home near Elm City that left her paralyzed from the neck down. At the time, doctors told her parents it was unlikely she would regain any mobility in her body.
“A millimeter can make a big difference in what a person can and can’t do. They were excited just to start with that she could use her arms,” said Janet Bailey, Emma’s mother. “Because of where her injury is, she really shouldn’t be able to do much with her arms.”
However, Emma, now 19, was determined to attend graduation, and a group of supportive friends and family, led by her mom and dad, Bryan, got busy well before dawn on the Saturday of commencement to make sure Emma arrived via medical transport from WakeMed in Raleigh and was able to receive her high school diploma.
“They were working behind the scenes to get her to graduation. I thought they were crazy,” Janet Bailey said. “A couple of the ICU nurses came and did her hair and her makeup. They all came and shaved her legs and did all kinds of stuff.”
Janet Bailey said the support of community members, the schools where she and her husband teach, Coopers Elementary and Southern Nash Middle respectively, their church, Englewood Baptist in Rocky Mount, and even total strangers has never wavered. From building ramps to retrofit their home to accommodate Emma’s power chair to bringing food and sending cards, the love shown to the Bailey family has been needed and appreciated.
“Words will never, ever be able to say what their love and support has done for us,” Janet Bailey said. “We’ve got people we don’t even know praying for us and checking on us. Every need has been taken care of, and we’re very thankful for that.”
The Bailey family said the community’s support, combined with a determination and faith rarely seen in someone still in her teens, has allowed Emma to exceed her doctors’ initial expectations. Today, she has regained enough upper body strength to operate a manual wheelchair. She continues physical therapy four days a week at WakeMed and NextStep, a paralysis recovery center in Raleigh. She also just completed a two-week physical therapy boot camp at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.
Because of this, Emma will be able to live on campus at Meredith. She said the college has been extremely supportive, and the students have gone above and beyond to let her know they have carved out a special place for her at school. The roommate assigned to her last year requested her again this year, and the student mentor assigned to her did the same.
Emma, who is an artist, plans to continue a creative path in college and intends to major in either graphic or interior design. However, her injury has also brought new perspective.
“Being in a wheelchair makes you realize how inaccessible everything really is. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. So maybe I’ll be designing hospitals or different places because I know what it’s like trying to get around,” Emma said. “I think that most of the people who design restaurants and stuff, they’ve probably never been in a wheelchair.”
Working to ensure an independent life is a priority, but it’s not her ultimate goal.
“The ultimate goal is for me to walk again. I still believe that’s going to happen,” Emma said. “I didn’t know how long it’s going to take. Everybody has a different timeline when it comes to a spinal cord injury, and not everybody walks again. Even though it’s been almost a year, I don’t want people to just throw that away. I still believe that. I still think it’s going to happen.”
Emma’s mother added, “We still need people to pray for her and pray that it’s going to happen. For me, I’m trying to balance that hope and that belief that she will walk with getting her independent where she is now.”
“I can’t just pause my life,” Emma said. “I have to progress with my life and go to school.”