After a Life-Altering Accident, a Young Teacher Adapts to a New Reality | Health Care | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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After a Life-Altering Accident, a Young Teacher Adapts to a New Reality

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Published November 23, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Allie Bianchi undergoing physical therapy at Fanny Allen - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Allie Bianchi undergoing physical therapy at Fanny Allen

Allie Bianchi's life was on a sky's-the-limit trajectory. With a fresh college degree in hand, Bianchi, 23, had finished her first year at Barre City Elementary School working as a special educator, a job she'd dreamed about.

She'd started on a master's degree and still found time to babysit local kids she'd worked with since she was a teen. She was thinking about getting her own place and moving out of her childhood home in Richmond.

Bianchi gravitated toward activities that allowed her to move her body. A former field hockey player at SUNY Cortland and high school dance team member, she liked to work off the stress of her job by rising before dawn in winter to scale the slopes at Jay Peak and Bolton Valley and ski back down. So it was no surprise that on a steamy summer Saturday, she'd end up mountain biking at Catamount Outdoor Family Center in Williston with two of her best friends.

It was August 6, the day Bianchi's life would be divided into before and after.

The three friends were taking jumps off a rock no more than eight inches high when Bianchi's front wheel turned slightly to the left as it hit the rock. She was propelled over her handlebars and into the grass. Her neck took the full impact of the fall.

Bianchi knew immediately that something was wrong. Her arms dangled and her legs felt like they were above her head. When rescue workers loaded her into an ambulance, Bianchi offered her own prescient diagnosis: "I'm paralyzed, and I'm not going to walk again."

Doctors at the University of Vermont Medical Center found that she had bent her spine and fractured two vertebrae in her lower neck, rendering her quadriplegic, or paralyzed in all four limbs. They inserted two rods and eight screws in her spine.

It did not take long for community members to rally to Bianchi's side. Eleven days later, when she was taken to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston for eight weeks of occupational and physical therapy, helpers began making the Bianchis' home in Richmond accessible for the new electric wheelchair she would now be using. It was the start of a season's worth of supportive actions that friends and neighbors have taken to help Bianchi and her family face a new reality.

Almost four months after the accident, Bianchi is adapting. Her injury is considered incomplete — meaning that her spinal cord is still able to transmit some nerve signals to and from the brain — and she and her family have been encouraged by gradual improvements. Though Bianchi has only limited control of her hands, she has regained full motion in her arms and some strength and contractions in her arm muscles. She's also getting back some sensation in her lower body.

There are days — "a lot of days" — where "you just are like, This sucks. I hate this," Bianchi said.

But she also believes that something good can come out of her new circumstances.

"I think I'm in a neat position where I've worked with kids with disabilities for so long, and now I'm someone who has one," Bianchi said. "What can I do with that?"

Her determined spirit doesn't surprise those who know her well.

Allie Bianchi - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Allie Bianchi

The youngest of three siblings, Bianchi "was a kid I never worried about," her mother, Lisa, said. "She's always been so independent and self-reliant and hardworking."

"Allie is just somebody [whose] attitude does not waver from situation to situation, circumstance to circumstance," said Rose Bedard, Bianchi's high school dance coach. "She's always found a way to shine ... and shed her light on others."

That light has been reflected onto the Bianchi family in the aftermath of the accident.

To help pay for her living costs and medical expenses, friends organized a GoFundMe page, which has collected more than $109,000 to date. Skida, a local ski apparel company, made hundreds of hats bearing "Allie Strong" tags as fundraising items. Local kids raised more than $1,000 by selling homemade cards at the Underhill Old Fashioned Harvest Market. Countless people sent cards or posted virtual notes on a CaringBridge website, where Lisa, a dental hygienist, writes periodic updates.

"They didn't just raise up Allie," Lisa said. "They raised up all of us."

Allie's older brother oversaw the construction of a first-floor addition that would serve as her new bedroom and remodeled the bathroom to make it accessible by wheelchair. A crew of friends and acquaintances pitched in, helping pour concrete, put up Sheetrock and install tile. A local store donated bathroom cabinets, and volunteers from the Rotary Club of Richmond-Williston built an outdoor ramp.

Denny Lewis — a dairy farmer who has been a patient of Lisa's for decades — helped finish the foundation work for the addition after the original contractor got too busy.

"The Bianchis are a really good family, and I think they would do the same for any of us," Lewis said.

Lisa and her husband, Dana, have continued to work full time and have relied on friends to keep their daughter company and take her to physical and occupational therapy appointments at the UVM Medical Center's Fanny Allen campus.

One of the helpers is Richmond resident Katie Nelson. Allie Bianchi began babysitting for Nelson's family when she was 16. At that time, Nelson had a toddler and an infant who required a feeding tube. Bianchi learned how to administer the feeding tube and served as a personal care assistant for Nelson's younger child. In the early part of this summer, she started tutoring both boys.

Nelson said it was difficult to tell her children, who are now 8 and 11, about the accident, because they view Bianchi as such a pillar in their lives. The first thing they asked was whether their father could build a ramp to their house so that Bianchi could continue to visit them.

Nelson told her sons that their relationship was going to look different. "It's our time to take care of Allie," she said.

Allie Bianchi hiking pre-accident - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Allie Bianchi hiking pre-accident

The roles haven't reversed completely, though. Nelson has taken her boys to Bianchi's house so that she could help them with homework. Bianchi also recently volunteered to read in the classroom of another child she babysat.

Charlotte resident Kelly Brush Davisson, a former Middlebury College skier who was paralyzed from the waist down after a racing accident in 2006, reached out to the Bianchis soon after the accident. Brush Davisson and her family run the Kelly Brush Foundation, a nonprofit that helps people stay active following spinal-cord injuries.

Brush Davisson, now a nurse practitioner and mother of two young children, said her primary message to Bianchi was that life doesn't have to be completely different from before.

"Yes, you're gonna do some things differently, but there's still so much that you can do and there's so much good in your life still," she said.

Brush Davisson said she's convinced that Bianchi can return one day to teaching and activities such as mountain biking and skiing, through the use of adaptive equipment.

"It's going to take a lot of work, but the more that you can push yourself and force yourself to do those things that feel really hard, the more independent you're going to be able to live," she said.

Bianchi sounded up for the challenge.

"I hate relying on other people, even though I'm so grateful for it," she said. "I'm like, I want to do it myself now."

Because Fanny Allen doesn't have expertise in spinal cord injuries, Bianchi's family wants to get her into an outpatient program outside Vermont in the coming months, in the hope that skilled staff and specialized equipment will aid her rehabilitation. She's also awaiting a manual wheelchair, which she'd eventually like to use instead of the electric one.

In the meantime, the family has celebrated small victories, like seeing Bianchi manage to tuck her hair behind her ear or pop potato chips into her mouth. She's working on bending back her wrist in a way that allows the fingers to pick up and release objects, a movement known as a tenodesis grasp.

Bianchi said her injury has made her realize how inaccessible the world can be from a wheelchair and has given her a new perspective on what's worth worrying about.

She has begun to picture a life in which her disability might serve to expand her potential, rather than restrict it. She envisions a future helping kids, advocating for wheelchair accessibility or working to promote an active lifestyle.

"There are so many different pathways I can go down," Bianchi said. "And I feel like, Holy cow. How do I choose which one?"

Making Strides

Ryan McLaren with Adrienne Shea and their daughter, Devon - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Ryan McLaren with Adrienne Shea and their daughter, Devon

Five and a half years ago, Ryan McLaren's life changed in an instant during a Saint Patrick's Day ski accident at Waitsfield's Mad River Glen.

A staffer for U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), McLaren was paralyzed from the knees down and spent months at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston and other outpatient physical therapy gyms, learning to use a wheelchair and walker and building muscle strength. In March 2018, reporter Molly Walsh wrote about McLaren's first year after his accident in a Seven Days cover story, highlighting his wedding to college sweetheart Adrienne Shea and his return to working for Welch.

In the years since, McLaren, 36, has continued to make strides physically, personally and professionally.

After using a manual wheelchair as his main way to get around for a year and a half, McLaren began using a walker, then a rolling walker. Homebound during the early days of the pandemic, McLaren was able to practice using forearm crutches. "By the time we sort of reemerged into the world," he said, "I was confident enough to use them publicly, and I use them everywhere now."

Though he hasn't regained function below his knees, McLaren has continued to strengthen his muscles with the help of a rowing machine and a handcycle. He's competed in the Boston Marathon twice on his handcycle.

McLaren and Shea moved into a single-story home in Essex about four years ago. The couple had to make a few accommodations to the property, such as adding grab bars to the bathroom and a portable ramp in the garage. A bigger adjustment was the birth of their daughter, Devon, who is now 2. McLaren calls parenthood "amazing."

For Devon, McLaren's injury "is totally normal," he said. "It just is what it is. She's always sort of noticed, but it's never been like, Why?"

When he takes her to school or the doctor, he uses his wheelchair. Devon rides on his lap or walks alongside him.

"I wish I could carry her around or throw her around," he said, "but anything I need to do, I can do. We've sort of figured [it] out."

This year, McLaren ran Welch's successful campaign for U.S. Senate. He said he's grateful that Welch gave him the opportunity to continue working after his accident, even when he was "a little bit of a disaster" at first and had to take time off for rehab in Boston.

McLaren is back on the slopes, thanks in part to the High Fives Foundation, a nonprofit started by Waitsfield native Roy Tuscany. McLaren learned how to use a monoski at a camp at Sugarbush that the foundation ran in partnership with Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports.

The first run down the mountain was emotional, McLaren recalled. "But now it's like, Holy shit, I can be in this place again," he said. "The thrill is the same. The sense of freedom is the same."

Every Saint Patrick's Day, McLaren goes back to Mad River Glen to mark the date of the accident. This year, he rode up the single chair to enjoy a beer at the top with the ski patrollers who had come to his aid that day.

"It's like a birthday, almost," McLaren said. "I have a new life that started then that is great and different than it was, but I appreciate it a lot."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Still Allie"