By SUE NOWICKI
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The petite girl in the Modesto Junior College music-appreciation class looks like everyone else in the auditorium — wearing blue jeans and sneakers, taking notes, exchanging grins with a friend.
Then the dismissal bell rings and she pulls a nearby wheelchair up to her seat so it is facing her. She almost falls because it’s tough trying to turn 180 degrees when your legs are paralyzed. But her determination and upper body strength save her at the last minute, and Michelle Dalrymple is rolling out the door, looking up to chat with a classmate.
The 18-year-old does a lot of looking up these days, ever since the bizarre accident that left a bullet lodged in her spine.
“It’s given me a completely different perspective on life,” she said. “I used to be short and looked up to people, but now I’m really short. I know what it’s like to lose a lot. I know what’s it like to not know if you’re going to live or die. It scares you. Then after everything happened, it made me value life more.”
The “everything” that happened was the day in August 2006 when she was a Modesto beauty college student between her junior and senior years at Big Valley Christian High School. She was learning how to be a hairstylist to help pay for college.
“I thought it would be a fun job,” she said.
The students were on a break and sitting in a circle talking about their weekend plans. Another student, Mick Rubalcava, had come back inside from a smoking break and sat in a chair behind Michelle. Rubalcava, a 23-year-old off-duty security officer, had a 9 mm handgun in his backpack. The gun discharged when he put the pack on the floor; the bullet went through Michelle’s plastic chair, hit her backbone and traveled up along it, severing her spinal cord.
Rubalcava pleaded guilty to one felony and two misdemeanors in the case and was sentenced to 270 days. With credits for good behavior and jail overcrowding, he served about six months in the county jail in 2007.
Unless a miracle occurs, Michelle will spend the rest of her life as a paraplegic. She believes in the message of Easter, believes she’ll walk again in heaven. But in a split-second, her earthly life changed totally.
Michelle is the youngest of three children in the Dalrymple family. Her dad, Terry, and mom, Jeannie, were missionaries in the Philippines when Michelle was born. Terry now is the international coordinator with Modesto-based LifeWind International, a nonprofit organization that helps communities in impoverished countries.
Michelle’s mom is a registered nurse at Doctors Medical Center. Tim, Michelle’s 24-year-old brother, is on staff at Big Valley Grace Community Church. Her sister, Karen, 21, works in the banking industry in Modesto.
Talk to any of them and a picture of an energetic Michelle emerges.
“Being the youngest, she was always the scrapper,” recalled Jeannie. “We called her the Energizer bunny.”
That early love of activity continued into her teens. She jogged regularly and played volleyball and basketball at Big Valley Christian High School. She also loved soccer.
“From a father’s perspective, she was doing everything right,” Terry said. “She was studying hard in school. She was active in sports. She had a good group of friends. … She was very active with the youth group. She gave her Easter vacations every year to go to Mexico and serve the needs of people down there.”
He also appreciated the way she was thinking ahead.
“She knew that we didn’t have a lot of money and she’d need to support herself through college, so she was taking the cosmetology course,” he said. “I was just delighted to see she had vision and determination and plans, and was very happy at the direction her life was moving.”
The direction, of course, veered sharply after the accident.
Karen was the first family member to get a call saying her sister had been hurt. She drove to the beauty college, thinking Michelle might have suffered a chemical burn.
“I can’t even imagine what it was like for her,” Michelle said. “She walked into the room and saw me on the floor with blood.”
Michelle’s mother, ironically, was in a trauma nursing class about gunshot wounds. When Karen told her mom to go to Doctors’ emergency room, Jeannie also assumed Michelle perhaps had a chemical burn on her hand.
“Four months prior, I had transferred to the neurology unit, where we deal with kids in car accidents and young people who are victims,” Jeannie said. “I asked my charge nurse, ‘How do you deal with it?’
“In retrospect, I see God’s hand in all of this, even in moving me to the neurology unit that deals with spinal cord injuries. Michelle was brought not only to my hospital, but to my colleagues.”
Meanwhile, Terry was in Southern California, waiting to speak at a medical missions seminar.
“Someone came to the side of the stage. … I was told there was a phone call I needed to take. I went outside in the hall and took it. It was Jeannie. She told me, ‘You need to sit down. You need to have people around you.’ I told her, ‘I can’t sit down. I don’t see anyone around me. Just tell me.’ She said, ‘Michelle has been shot. You need to come home.’ ”
The next thing Terry remembers is being in someone’s arms, surrounded by others who prayed for Michelle and the family. A colleague drove him back to Modesto. On the way, Terry received numerous calls with conflicting information. When the two stopped for gas in Fresno, Terry finally talked with the family’s doctor and learned the truth: The bullet had severed Michelle’s spinal cord and she likely would be paralyzed for life.
The Dalrymples’ pastor, Rick Countryman of Big Valley Grace Community Church, was one of the first to arrive at the hospital.
“When I first heard about it, to say that my heart was broken would be the understatement of the year,” he said. “I began to weep; I just cried. I was broken for them.”
Yet even in the midst of the crushing news, the Dalrymples said they knew God was present. One of Jeannie’s colleagues pointed the family to the Shriners hospital in Sacramento that has a rehabilitation unit for spinal cord injuries. “Michelle was injured on a Friday and in Shriners on Tuesday,” Jeannie said.
Michelle spent more than two months there learning how to live without the use of her legs, receiving initial physical therapy and hearing about special dietary needs, such as extra protein, needed to maintain muscle mass in her legs and prevent pressure sores.
“I don’t like peanut butter anymore,” she said. “They gave tons and tons of it to me there.”
While she was at Shriners, many people in the community — especially those from their church — helped remodel the Dalrymples’ home. They elevated a step-down living room to put the house on one level, widened doorways and replaced rugs with tile. They expanded the kitchen, adding lower counters so Michelle could prepare food. They tore out walls, installed a roll-in shower, changed her bedroom and did lots of other work, donating much of the material.
Church folks drove Michelle’s friends and classmates to Sacramento each day to keep her encouraged and in touch.
“I don’t know where I would have seen the hand of God if not in the people of God,” Terry said. “The church really mobilized and stepped in.”
He doesn’t like to talk about finances, but did admit, “It has impacted us financially.” He said during a 2006 court hearing that the house remodeling, beyond all the donations, cost the family $40,000, and that lifelong care for a disabled person is more than $1 million.
“One of my biggest concerns is that Michelle is adequately provided for as she goes forward. In the words of a friend who’s been disabled for a long time, it’s expensive to be disabled,” Terry said.
Big moment at graduation
When Michelle returned to Modesto, she worked hard with physical therapists to gain upper body strength and learn difficult tasks, such as how to get into her wheelchair from the floor. One of her goals was to “walk” the stage for her high school graduation.
She could wear leg braces to help her stand and use a walker to move forward if she could develop enough strength and learn to coordinate everything.
“It took a lot of practice,” Michelle said. “My physical therapists were really good. When you’re paralyzed, your center of balance changes. I had to figure out how to keep my balance without seeing my feet (under my dress). It was hard.”
But she did it, an amazing moment that her mom treasures.
“People asked, ‘Did you scream? Yell?’ The whole auditorium stood up and cheered,” Jeannie said. “I was silent, with my hands folded. I was so proud of her, for her hard work to do that. I cried.”
The leg braces can be used for special short-term purposes only, such as to change a light bulb. For ordinary life, the wheelchair is Michelle’s only option.
Immense changes and grief
“People don’t really understand (disability) until you go through it,” Michelle said. “We just understand as a family that we’re all going through a lot. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I want to ignore me being in a wheelchair.”
She described supposedly handicapped-accessible hotel rooms that often are not. In one, the shower seat was on one side with the faucet unreachable on the opposite side. Or the shower head on a flexible extension tube would recoil out of reach when she’d let it go to shampoo her hair.
Besides physical challenges, there are social obstacles. Michelle can’t hang out with friends as often as she’d like. “I can’t fit into their bathrooms,” she explained.
And she has had to change her career and college goals.
“Before, I was looking into being an occupational therapist or a physical therapist at Samford University in Alabama or Liberty University (in Virginia). But now that I’m in a wheelchair, it makes a difference. Liberty is very hilly and it snows there. I’m thinking about going into nutrition now. My doctor told me paraplegics have the highest risk for getting heart disease, and I took a nutrition class last semester and really like it.”
She misses the physical activity she once thrived on, although she has tried sports for paraplegics — archery, skiing and sailing — and hopes to kayak this summer.
“One of my goals before was to run in a marathon. It’s not the same to wheel in a marathon. There’s this feeling you get after you run that’s just incredible. I don’t get that anymore,” Michelle said wistfully. “No matter what I do, I’m never going to be as active as I used to be.”
Her parents, too, miss their daughter’s independence.
“The feeling of loss is constant,” Jeannie said. “Michelle was about to graduate and go off to college. Terry and I were going to travel more together and do ministry. But my loss isn’t for that — it’s for her loss. This has changed all of us.”
Terry said he never knows when tears will come.
“The other day, I watched my niece playing volleyball and the tears came,” he said. “I didn’t expect it. But I was reminded of Michelle. I went shopping with Michelle at The Gap and saw her barely able to reach items and with aisles too narrow for her wheelchair. I came away with emotions surging, and yet in the whole day, she didn’t complain once.”
Life is harder for Michelle. She used to bounce out of bed in the mornings. Now, she must force herself to start the work of simply getting out of bed, into her chair and through the morning routine. To get to school, she rolls up to the car, maneuvers from the wheelchair into the driver’s seat, takes off one wheel and throws it in the back seat, repeats that with the second wheel, then collapses the wheelchair and puts it on the passenger seat. When she arrives, she reverses the process, first reclining her seat to reach the two wheels.
Then there’s the thoughtlessness of other students: Gum tossed on the ground gets on her wheelchair tires and then on her hands. Students in four-inch heels borrow handicapped permits and hog those spaces, especially on rainy days when Michelle’s forced to park off campus and get her wheels and hands soaked in puddles others easily could jump over.
The good stuff
“I have to understand that people don’t understand,” Michelle said. “I guess that’s given me a new perspective on God. I was frustrated at God, but then I realized I don’t understand God like people don’t understand me because they’re not disabled. Now I’m more aware of people with disabilities. I have more compassion than I did before.”
Michelle said she also has developed a deeper faith in God. “It’s not so superficial anymore. It’s a big thing,” she said. “A lot of times before, I used to be like, ‘Yeah, I have faith in God.’ It was like, ‘God, help me get a good grade on this test.’
“You get a whole new perspective when you realize you could have died. The doctors were really surprised I had lived. (The bullet) could have gone into my brain, but because it went through my plastic chair, it lost some speed. It reminds me that God has a purpose for me. I don’t know what it is, and sometimes I wonder why I couldn’t have had that purpose while I was walking. I just have to ask him, ‘God, is what I’m doing OK for you right now?’ ”
The answer is a definite yes, said her pastor.
“The bottom line in this thing is that the grace of God showed up in the life of Michelle,” Countryman said. “I can’t believe her attitude. … That doesn’t mean she hasn’t had bad moments — who wouldn’t? But she’s been an example of Christ in us, not only to our students but to our whole church. We had a ministry event where the youth were serving the adults, and there she was, serving people in her wheelchair. I’m not sure I could do that. That inspires others, when they see her serving Christ in the midst of this.”
Another act of service will come in May when Michelle will travel to the Philippines to help distribute special wheelchairs to disabled people there.
Terry said, “I realize that God can bring good things out of this very negative experience. I’m not at a place where I can say this is a good thing that has happened to Michelle, but I can say God is using it to bring good things. One of the good things is 550 families who will be inspired and given hope because a disabled person in their home has mobility and a wheelchair.”
He added, “I’ve preached a lot of sermons on God’s grace is sufficient, but I haven’t seen a better sermon than what I see in Michelle’s life. I think there are a lot of questions that we may not be able to answer — why this happened — but one thing I have learned through this is that God has not abandoned us, but has walked with us. That’s what we hold onto, the promise that God is with us.”
Jeannie said the tragedy has made her a better nurse.
“I see people hurting all the time,” she said. “I can pray for them, not knowing how they feel, but knowing what a loss is like. I’m a better advocate for families.”
And it’s the Dalrymples’ belief in the promise of Easter — that Jesus was a real person who walked on this Earth, that he died and rose from the dead to open a way to heaven for humans who believe that he is the son of God — that gives them hope for a different reality in the future.
“Part of the thought of going to heaven is knowing Michelle will walk again,” Jeannie said. “I know she will be restored.”
To help the family with expenses, people can donate to the Michelle Dalrymple fund at Bank of the West, 3600 McHenry Ave., Modesto.