Wheels for Gabby: the story of one lesbian’s struggles beyond sexuality

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It was the fourth week of high school tryouts for the swim team. She knew the dives and the strokes. She was ready. She leaped off the board, and would never be able to swim again. 

That day, Gabriela Rodriguez became paralyzed from the neck down. Her dive resulted in landing at a ninety-degree angle underneath the diving board and her head hitting the bottom of the pool straight on. 

She felt ants crawling all over her body, and then nothing. Holding her breath, she floated to the surface where her good friend held her. “Am I bleeding? What’s going on?” she asked, believing that she had cracked her skull open. “I don’t see anything,” her friend responded. 

During surgery, a piece of her left fibula was scraped out in order to reconstruct the sixth vertebrae in her neck that had been completely crushed. Unconscious until the following day, she had no idea how serious her accident had been. Two days later, that she the doctor told her, “It was a very serious injury and difficult surgery. I’ve done everything I can.” The rest would depend on how her body responded to therapy. 

Rodriguez asked for a mirror. When she saw that she was wearing a “halo,” a device that screwed into her skull in the front and back connecting down to a vest so as to prevent her neck from moving, she understood and broke down. “I knew it was big and it was going to be a whole different and new lifestyle,” she told 429Magazine. 

“I was angry at myself; at what I had done and I kept on thinking: ‘What if I had done this? What if I had done that?’” Rodriguez said. “I had moments of anger…and trying to figure out how I can fix it even though I knew it was already past.”

She explains how it didn’t hit her that she was paralyzed until she started doing therapy. For three months, she stayed at the rehabilitation hospital, and for two of those she floated by in depression and anger; refusing to participate. It wasn’t until her therapist yelled back at her and told her that she was there for her, but if she was going to give up, then she’d give up on her as well. 

“That was the turning point for me…I’m not a person who gives up,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve always taken on a lot of challenges. I’ve always been the type of person who will always try at least once. Her words really hit me.” 

That was the first day she got out of the wheelchair. That was 18 years ago. 

Since then, Rodriguez has slowly gained movement in her upper body including full range of motion in her arms, but nothing in her fingers. From the chest down, she remains immobile. However, she is able to text and type fifty words per minute, has maintained a career in graphic design, does countless hours of volunteer work with the LGBT community, and has found true love with her wife.

“I have movement in my wrists so I position my fingers so I can touch every key separately,” she explains. “I put pressure with my wrist [to]press down on the keys. I use the mouse and keyboard very well; and the programs that I use, like Photoshop, are very giving when it comes to drawing.”

After three years, Rodriguez lost her passion for graphic design and redirected her career becoming a peer counselor with newly injured spinal cord patients at Head North. 

And with a minor in Creative Studies from New Mexico, she wrote often as a release: short stories involving her frustrations, good days, and discoveries of her own disability. 

When asked if she would publish a book, or if her experience was too personal, Rodriguez said, “Oh no! I don’t find anything in my life personal. I consider myself an open book and a lot of the time, I see the curiosity in people. Ask me anything you want. It’s very normal. I mean, people with disabilities are still not your everyday people.”

Just completing her masters in Rehabilitation Counseling, Rodriguez focuses her time helping individuals with disabilities find jobs. Currently, she does Initial Intake Counseling, taking in walk-ins or appointments from people that are newly diagnosed with HIV, suffering from depression, anxiety, or loss of any kind. 

“I love my job because everyday I get a new story and I try to give them a little bit of guidance and motivation, and it seems to work,” she said. “It’s a really good part of my day.” 

Rodriguez goes on to explain that despite how much she loves her job, she is often times left completely drained. 

“Some days I’m so mad and angry because I’ve received a teenager that’s been kicked out by their parents because they’re gay, and they’re only fourteen, on the streets and scared,” said Rodriguez. “It does take a toll. It can be very sad and draining. They look for you for an answer and sometimes you just don’t have it. I come home to my wife and wish we could bring them all home.” 

Newly wed, Rodriguez lives with her wife, Jamie. The two met online just over a year ago, and after a date night with Rodriguez’s cat and Jamie’s Chihuahua, the family was inseparable. 

“She’s learned to take care of me and deal with me and work around my limitations,” Rodriguez said. “When we first started, [Jamie] said one of the biggest breakers was if I was going to be able to get into the beach water with her. And after the first day that we went, and she got me on the beach wheelchair, she said to me she knew then that we were going to be ok.” 

Their official ceremony will be held during San Diego’s Pride Weekend.

Rodriguez began volunteering withe the Pride weekend one to two days a week, and quickly became completely immersed in the community, eventually volunteering all week long. 

“It was a huge responsibility [and]very, very tiring,” she said. “By Monday I feel like I’m going to die, but throughout that weekend I just love it. I love seeing how the community comes together and is free to express themselves for at least one weekend and that’s very gratifying.”

San Diego Pride is also significant for Rodriguez as it is where she found herself and came out. For a long time she thought she was happy dating men, but towards the end of her time in Texas, she realized she was covering up her feelings to please her family and friends, and follow the norm expected from someone raised Catholic. Joining San Diego Pride was a test to see if it was something she really felt comfortable with. 

“[Being] involved with SD Pride, I feel that drive and that excitement in anything and everything that we do or talk about doing,” Rodriguez explained. “That’s when I started feeling like this my comfort area. This is what’s making me happy and brings me joy. This is who I am. It’s kind of crazy because I didn’t come out until I was 28.” 

Through Rodriguez’s accident, she was able to find herself. She’s discovered that she’s become more motivated to be able to show people “that there are no limits…only those you put on yourself.” 

“I’ve learned to try and help people as much as I can in the areas that I am able to, and I think one of the big ones is, them, by seeing me or sharing my story, they can see that there are dark days but it gets better,” she said. “There is always another option.”

She asserts that like anyone else she has her good days and bad days. But, unlike everyone else, she is in a wheelchair.

One day on her way home from work, it began to rain. Her chair got a short and she was stranded in the crosswalk in the torrential downpour. Despite asking several people walking by for help, she was ignored and left there. 

“It was saddening to see people pass me by—not even acknowledge me, and look the other way and pretend to not even hear me,” Rodriguez said. “That is when I don’t like being in my chair because 99% of the time I don’t mind it. This is my life, I don’t see anything wrong with it. But those days definitely make me feel like I don’t want to be there.”

Just before the incident, she had started a campaign called “Wheels for Gabby” to raise funds to help her purchase an adapted truck for her wheelchair. With other health issues, Rodriguez has a number of doctors and travels two hours via public transportation just to see one of them. 

God Des and She, lesbian hip hop duo, has joined in on the campaign and has set a higher goal for her to acquire a new truck, as opposed to used. 

Rodriguez just celebrated the 18th year anniversary of her accident on March 2. 

“I don’t consider myself anything special or anything out of the norm,” said Rodriguez. “I do what I can with what I have and my love for volunteering and helping others is true. I want to thank everyone for taking the time and trouble in helping me”

About The Author

Writer. Photographer. World traveler. Fashion/art/music/food enthusiast. Lover of all things deviant and novel.

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