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Cindy’s triumph

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Posted: Saturday, October 2, 2010 12:00 am

She drove east on Peltier Road, unaware of any other cars on the road. It was a few minutes after 6 a.m. The sun was already blindingly bright. The country was dull and dry, with the exception of massive oaks and rows of wine grapes lining the two-lane road.

As she drove to work the summer after her second year of college, Cindy Louie noticed the changing seasons, and thought of the future. After a hot summer in the valley, she was thankful for the beautiful morning, so cool and refreshing.

She was the girl with potential. With drive to become whatever she wanted: an athlete or engineer, she thought. She loved laughing, attending St. Anne’s Catholic Church and popping popcorn and making chocolate chip cookies with her friends.

As she drove on the country road, unassumingly and so routinely, the morning sun radiated through the windshield of her Toyota Corolla and onto her face.

She came to the stop sign where Peltier crosses Elliott Road. She stopped. Looked through her sunglasses. And pushed her sneaker on the gas pedal.

Suddenly, it was there. A three-quarter ton truck propelled toward her with a magnetic force. It wouldn’t stop until the two vehicles became one gnarled mess of metal and human bodies. In that instant, everything changed.

Built-in tenacity

Today, Louie, now 48, stands on a wooden platform as she waits for one of her regular therapeutic horse riding lessons to begin. She is wearing a yellow tanktop, jeans and blue athletic shoes. The quad cane she depends on to walk is below her on the cement. Her grip is tight on the volunteers who stand beside her, helping her to keep balance.

Louie looks down at Moonie, the temperamental Norwegian Fjord, getting bridled in the indoor arena. Louie, who loves pushing herself physically, has been riding on and off since 1985. Riding is different, though, than the gym or the adapted P.E. classes.

“When you walk, your feet hurt,” Louie said, looking up from under her pink shimmering helmet. “When you’re riding, you feel free.”

With her eyes back on Moonie, Louie prepares herself to get on the small horse like she’s done so many times before: one small move at a time.

She’s lived her life much the same way. Pushing herself, little by little, to see how much she can do. Her journey, since the accident, has been long — and sometimes tiring. But she thrives on a challenge. Her accomplishments are remarkable. Her inability to quit or pity herself are inspiring.

Tina Calanchini, director of operations at Project Ride, works with people with disabilities. But Louie is different.

“This woman has a built-in tenacity we don’t see often,” Calanchini said.

Louie knows her limitations. She laughs at herself and doesn’t take herself too seriously. She may not be on the best-seller list of the New York Times, but won’t stop trying to get her story published.

She may never jump another hurdle, but she won’t stop pushing herself at the gym.

Some may think Louie’s condition has held her back, but she’s excited about the future. Always learning. Always growing stronger. And there is one thing she knows she is good at: Making others realize they, too, can do the impossible.

“If I can go through what I went through,” Louie said, “They say, ‘I can do more, also.’”

A life changed

Cindy Louie’s life changed that day in July of 1981, when she was on her way to a job site in Plymouth. In an essay, “I Know I Can Despite All Obstacles,” Louie recounts that day through her spotty memory:

I am a persistent, positive thinking, athletic person. But I’m also a head trauma survivor of serious injury from a 1981 car accident. My job as a flag person required a long drive from my Lodi home to Plymouth foothills. As a flag person, I directed traffic safely through road construction sites … . I was blinded by the early morning sun as I drove east through the intersection of Elliott and Collier Roads on the outskirts of Lodi. I was only 19. … The driver of the pickup truck, which collided with my small car, was also 19.

The truck driven by the young horse trainer plowed into the driver’s side of Louie’s car.

Louie’s smile faded, her mind went blank. Internally, blood was rushing to her head, causing her brain to fill with liquid and push against her skull. At Lodi Memorial Hospital, doctors drilled a hole into Louie’s skull to relieve the pressure from the swelling. They wired her jaw closed.

Silence. For 102 days. Louie, the 19-year-old college student, lingered near death. Her parents — Lorna Louie, a stay-at-home mom, and Sam Louie, who worked as a civil engineer in Sacramento and owned the Sampan Chinese Smorgy in Stockton — waited for their daughter to wake up.

The machines connected to their daughter beeped rhythmically. They helped make sure the girl who months before ran cross country wouldn’t stop breathing. Visitors tip-toed in. Friends left her notes on a bulletin board.

Nurses made notes on charts. Grandma visited with Cindy’s favorite, red bean tapioca. Doctors gave obligatory smiles. A mother prayed.

A daughter returns

At San Francisco’s St. Francis Memorial Hospital, where she was transferred to after Lodi Memorial Hospital, rehabilitation physician Dr. James D. Stark worked with Louie. She was still in a coma.

“He worked with her as if she was conscious,” Lorna Louie said.

They dressed Louie in her own clothes — mostly her running shorts and running shoes. Doctors would push her around the hospital in a wheelchair as though she was giving them directions. And at night, they would put her back in the hospital bed, between sheets from her own bedroom.

They hoped that the familiarity of objects would bring her back.

Eventually, it worked.

Her parents got to the hospital one morning to find that their daughter had finally gained consciousness. Her eyes were open. She could move the right side, but her left side was still impaired.

“They asked (Cindy), ‘Where’s dad?’ ... and she raised her hand and pointed (to me),” Sam Louie said with excitement as if it just happened.

After gaining consciousness, Louie fought for a life of normalcy. Days in the hospital passed, and doctors learned more about her condition. She had spasticity that affects skeletal muscle performance and causes decreased motor control and decreased endurance. She had a hole in her head that she would be able to feel for the rest of her life. She would have to relearn how to use her right hand, to get used to the formation of the letters of the alphabet once again.

Even Louie’s speech was affected by the accident. During the three-month coma, her left vocal chord shrunk and had to be repaired through surgery. She was able to speak louder after the surgery and with the help of a speech pathologist.

“I would recite the Pledge of Allegiance and a poem regularly to improve my speech,” she wrote.

Learning to live again

In high school, Louie was the kind of girl who seemed to have everything together. She could play the flute and piccolo. She was a runner who earned trophies for Most Valuable Girl in track in both 1977 and 1979. She received a  Bank of America achievement award for math and was a member of the California Scholarship Federation. She was in a Tokay High School production, “Annie Get Your Gun.” She had a smile that rarely faded. She was a typical teenager who had hoped to transfer to University of California, Berkeley.

But after that day, everything changed.

She would no longer fight with her siblings, like teenage siblings do. She would, however, fight to speak again.

Beating her 17-foot record in the long jump was no longer her goal, but learning to walk across the room was.

Studying to become an industrial engineer seemed so distant, when she could only type with a single finger as she lay in her hospital bed typing the same phrases over and over again.

After three months in a coma, recovery wasn’t easy. But being in peak shape — as a result of training with Tokay’s track and field team — had helped.

There are a lot of things Louie has never done: been married, had children, lived on her own or held a full-time job. She can’t drive herself. Sometimes, she can’t walk through the grocery store without getting tired. Still, she loves her life, and thrives at the things she’s learned to do.

“I don’t feel depressed by the things I can’t do, because there are so many things I can do,” Louie said.

Back on campus

Louie was in a wheelchair for two years after the accident. Still, she was always eager to move and feel like herself again.

An independent development program helped her discover her love of writing through journals. The trauma kept her from remembering the smallest details of her life, so she described her moment-by-moment self on the blank pages.

“She kept record of everything she wore, even what brand it was,” Lorna Louie said.

Louie adapted to her new life and her new body quickly. She never let herself be held back by a disability or fear. She joined a head trauma reintegration group that allowed her to go boating and horseback riding. Another group taught her to do calendar painting, cooking, swimming. Things that used to be part of everyday life: lunch with friends and the library.

Louie continues to immerse herself in school, church and physical activities. She finds her independence on the San Joaquin Delta campus, where she has been taking English and adapted P.E. classes. She makes her own arrangements for public transportation servicesthat take her where she wants to go.

She refuses to stay put.

An athlete forever

Louie lives with her parents in the south Lodi house she grew up in with two brothers and two sisters.

She walks with the help of the cane, a plastic ankle brace inside of her left shoe and sometimes the support of her mother’s arm. She often forgets things, and gets a shy smile when she can’t remember what she was going to say. She is eager to talk and tell stories, though sometimes she has to slow down and repeat herself.

She keeps herself busy with school and the gym. She loves to eat as much as she ever did, whether it’s avocado and tomato sandwiches, corned beef or Starbucks mochas in the bottle. Every day she enjoys her favorite breakfast: a homemade cereal made with old-fashioned oats, brown sugar, almonds, sunflower seeds and raisins — a recipe she got from Woman’s Day.

In her living room decorated with family heirlooms, Lorna Louie pulls a yellowing poster from a cardboard tube. It rolls to the carpet and reveals a teenage girl in mid- air, in the middle of a long jump, a smile on her face and hair loose and flowing as she stares into the camera.

The long, thick dark hair that is worn down in all of her pictures is now cut short. She wears glasses that connect to her always by a loose strap. And though Louie is 48 and never moved quite the same, she is, no doubt, still an athlete.

Louie emerges from her bedroom dressed like an Olympian. A white cotton tank top reveals her strong arms with muscles that flex when she grips the rubber cane handle. Short running shorts with slits on the sides show off muscular legs and curves that are a result from decades of weekly workouts at Twin Arbors Health Club, where she does leg extensions and walks on the treadmill. And though she sometimes walks with her shoulders hunched forward, she sits straight and strong.

Everything she has, she has because of hard work and a strong belief.

“You can do anything if you believe in yourself and believe in God,” Louie said.

Earning her stirrups

Back at Project Ride, Louie is gripping the reigns as Moonie zig-zags through obstacles in an arena of dark, freshly raked dirt.

Louie forces herself to stay balanced on the English saddle. There are no stirrups. She keeps her legs tight as they hang on Moonie’s sides. She will earn the support of stirrups only after she masters the first lesson. Until then, volunteers walk beside her, holding on.

It’s a challenge, but Cindy thrives on a challenge.

They trot through the arena, weaving in and out of cones as Louie uses her body to guide the horse. Louie is concentrating, striving to hit every mark.

It’s been 12 weeks since Louie started the weekly training, and her trainer, Emily Christ, notices that Louie is sitting up straighter and she’s walking with better posture.

Finally, Louie gets her stirrups — and a ride outside.

With her entourage surrounding her, Moonie takes Louie under a canopy of oak tree branches on the Project Ride property. She clings to the horse with her legs, and grips the reigns tightly. Cindy Louie is smiling, feeling her freedom.

Contact Lodi Living Editor Lauren Nelson at laurenn@lodinews.com.

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