I'm Dianne Vitkus and this is my story

About two years ago, my life span a full 180. In seconds, my life as I knew it was over. I was at the end of a four-day stretch of 12-hour shifts as a surgical physician assistant in Syracuse, New York. It was my dream job.

Inspired by my uncle, an oral surgeon, my job was to assist in the operating room and monitor post-operative patient care. After work, I came home to my apartment and sunk into my couch. As I looked out the window and saw just a part of the beautiful sunset, I really wanted a better view and a place to enjoy the warm summer evening. I grabbed a blanket and climbed the ladder to the roof. I watched the sun dip beneath the horizon and, as it darkened, thrilled as the stars took over the sky. On my way back down the 12-foot ladder, I slipped and landed on the hard cement floor beneath me.

As I laid on my back, I remember feeling immediate pain in my right shoulder and naively thinking, That’s gonna hurt in the morning. Strangely, nothing else hurt, and as I went to sit up, I realized why ... I could not feel or move anything from my chest down. I knew, in that moment, my life would never be the same.

It was 30 minutes before someone found me and called 911, so I had time to prepare myself for the chaos and uncertainty to come: 30 minutes to reminisce on my 28 years of life. 30 minutes to think about how privileged my life had been until this point. Did I make the most of it? Would I have done anything differently?

I had just settled into my job after years of schooling. Was it all for nothing? Would I ever operate again? To my surprise, even with all these thoughts racing, I stayed pretty calm. I knew the control and freedom I once had over my life was gone: fighting or panicking would be a waste of energy. All I could do was take a deep breath and wait for everything to change.

At the emergency department, they told me I’d fractured my right scapula and punctured a lung during the fall. As well as the surgery to fix my broken neck, I needed chest tubes, a feeding tube, respirator and, later, a tracheotomy. I spent four weeks in the Syracuse intensive care unit.

At no point did I think I wouldn’t make it out – I’m too stubborn! Looking back, I realize I was fighting for my life every day. Once I was stable, they transferred me to Spaulding Rehabilitation Center in Boston, where I spent two months in intensive inpatient rehab.

I’ve lived with type-one diabetes since I was 18 years old, so I knew adversity. In rehab, I quickly learned adversity is something you overcome. Struggle is something you endure. I know I’m going to struggle every single day – it’s not a choice I have. But I do have the choice to struggle either with resentment and misery or with love and laughter. When you struggle with love and laughter, days are a little less hard.

My optimism and perseverance grew through competition and sport. I grew up as a three-sport athlete and played collegiate lacrosse. After college, I stayed active, joining a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) gym, running a marathon, biking and hiking regularly. Each athletic endeavor had its own obstacles, but I have a zest for life that drives me forward, regardless of setbacks.

Dianne Vitkus with her parents

I also have an incredible community supporting me – they are my biggest saving grace. Even complete strangers have supported me and my family, sending cards, flowers and balloons, donating money, preparing meals. It’s incredibly humbling. I may not be able to walk, but these people help me stand tall. I will walk again one day, and that comeback will be that much more epic because of the love, laughter, and happiness I still achieve in this chair.

Dianne Vitkus at the harbor

As Chris Norton said, “Happiness isn’t measured by steps. It’s measured by the relationships you form and the relationships you keep.” It was the drive to repay my community’s kindness that pushed me through my recovery.

As the months passed by, though, my hope for renewed feeling and movement below my injury level faded. I didn’t want to set my expectations too high just to be let down. But hearing about Wings for Life and all the successful research and clinical trials they fund, my hope rekindled.

The Wings for Life World Run is a vital part of the foundation’s mission to find a cure for spinal cord injury. Every runner, roller and walker worldwide on May 8 takes us closer to that ultimate goal. All entry fees and every donation go to cutting-edge spinal cord research. Donate now or sign up to join this incredible community.