Wednesday, January 09, 2008

My sister-in-law teaches from her wheelchair

Lisa, in white, hangs with our drinkin and lickin niece from the Great Midwest.

A few days ago, my sister in law was in the news. The article is pasted onto the bottom of this post.

Lisa was injured in a vehicle accident in Dec 2002, has paralysis in her arms and legs, and nevertheless teaches 8th grade classes from her high tech wheelchair.

Lisa maneuvers her wheelchair via head controls. She drives with elan, maneuvering in tight spaces: forward, back, spinning in place; dancing down hallways and around corners; even once utilizing the wheelchair - as an offensive weapon - against a school desk which was harboring a sleeping student.

Lisa has a Masters Degree in Education. She has been teaching for 23 years. Her school typically assigns a number of discipline problem students to her classrooms. Lisa is adept at handling such cases. She has several years of elementary school background, and she speculates that difficult students might benefit from the deliberate pace at which she moves through class material.

Lisa's is also the story of her entire family - immediate and extended, and of her school and neighborhood and church communities in Denham Springs, Louisiana, which is just east of Baton Rouge on I-12 (Exit at the Bass Pro Shop). Everyone likes to help a friend. Having such opportunity is a blessing. And having such friends is a blessing.

My brother, Bruce, does yeoman's work helping Lisa with logistics. I neither know how to adequately convey, nor to adequately honor, the entirety of Bruce's accomplishments. The same goes for my niece, Courtney(20), and my nephew, Baron(17).

Courtney (1) poses with an admirer.

For Christmas, I gave Bruce Lone Survivor, which is Texan Marcus Luttrell's account of a Navy Seal mission into the Afghanistan/Pakistan border/tribal lands. Three of the four man Seal team were killed when the team decided on Option B: race out of the mountains ahead of a nearby 150 man militia; instead of Option A: kill three goat-herders who had stumbled across their position, and whom - if allowed to live - would almost surely inform the hostile militia of the American presence in the mountains.

After his comrades had perished, Luttrell was blown, by an RPG, into some brush on the edge of a mountain. He crawled off the mountain edge, and hid in underbrush on a tiny ledge, which is how he survived the day. Over the ensuing days, Luttrell overcame difficulty after difficulty in his effort to survive. Every time Luttrell surmounted one obstacle, another crazy obstacle would appear. Luttrell was like a man hosting a houseful of relatives, in his newly constructed house, on Christmas Eve, only to have his sewer overflow into his bedroom, twice. Hard to imagine such situations. Heh.

L to R: Me; Bro64 (1), aka sire of the drinkin and lickin niece(1,2,3); nephew Baron(1,2); brother Bruce (1)

No matter what happened on the mountainsides of the Hindu Kush, Luttrell kept moving forward, putting one foot in front of the other, until he was rescued many days later. He moved through an amazing litany of obstacles. At least, I thought it was amazing. And this is why I gave this book to Bruce. He and Marcus Luttrell remind me of each other: they keep plugging along, moving forward, via brains and spirit, no matter what happens. Salute, boys.

I'm reprinting the entire Baton Rouge Advocate article, in case the link ever quits working:

Cotharn inspires from her wheelchair

Livingston-Tangipahoa writer
Published: Dec 27, 2007

DENHAM SPRINGS — On Friday, teacher Lisa Cotharn helped her eighth-grade students prepare for the LEAP test.

Essay-writing is part of the test, and together, the students were creating an essay, with one of the teens writing it down on the whiteboard.

“Folks, we just wrote the first paragraph of our five-paragraph essay,” Cotharn, a language arts teacher, said encouragingly, after the students had completed the topic paragraph.

She wants them to be ready for the LEAP challenge in the spring. Cotharn, 46, knows about challenges.

A teacher for 23 years, 11 of them at Denham Springs Junior High, Cotharn suffered a broken neck in a car accident in December 2002.

In 2004, she returned to the classroom, with the aid of a high-tech wheelchair she controls by moving her head against a computer-mouse-like device.

Cotharn can move her head and has some slight movement in her arms and hands.

Through the six months she spent at a rehabilitation hospital in Texas, she said, her end goal “was to get back into the classroom.”

She said when she first returned to the classroom three years ago in her wheelchair, “I showed them all the bells and whistles. I allowed them to ask questions about my chair.”

“They are very accepting of it,” Cotharn said.

On this particular day, in addition to Cotharn’s classroom students, there are two other helpers there.

Cotharn’s daughter, Courtney, a junior at Southeastern Louisiana University, and SLU student, Lee-Ann Ryan, who was an eighth-grader in Cotharn’s class, when the car accident happened.

Ryan was one of the students to send regular cards to Cotharn in the hospital and also came to visit Cotharn once she returned home, Cotharn said.

These days, Ryan comes by sometimes to help in class, and Cotharn has regular helpers in her daughter, and her son, Baron, a senior at Denham Springs High School, who’s part-time job (he’s paid by mom) is to come help in her classroom when he gets out of school at mid-day.

Before her mother was able to return to teaching, Courtney said, her mom felt “very held back.”

Now, Courtney said, “She’s doing what she loves.”

“This is what I’m used to,” Courtney said. “I’ve always known her as a teacher. She’s always been a mom and a teacher.”

Cotharn’s family, the school, and her church, Jefferson Baptist in Baton Rouge, have been the supports Cotharn needs, she said.

“My husband had to sacrifice a lot of his life to attend to me,” Cotharn said of her husband, Bruce.

“If not for the sacrifices of my family, I would not be able to be here,” Cotharn said.

The Rev. Tommy French, with Jefferson Baptist Church, said the Cotharns have always been active church members and continue to participate.

“She has that spirit of life” that will overcome obstacles, French said of Lisa.

Cotharn maintains an easy command of the classroom, interjected with humor and understanding.

At the end of one of the classes, recently, she tells the students, “I’m going to give you a present, but the present has to be opened carefully.”

That present is 10 minutes worth of quiet socializing, before class ends.

“I tend to be strict, but yet allow them to have an opinion. They know what their limits are,” Cotharn, said.

“As any parent or teacher of a junior high school student can tell you, you never know what their behavior is going to be from one minute to the next,” she said, with a smile.

Cotharn continues to receive daily occupational and physical therapy.

In 2004, Cotharn and her husband traveled to Lisbon, Portugal, where Cotharn underwent olfactory stem cell surgery, in a trial procedure, in which Cotharn’s own stem cells were transplanted into the place of her spinal injury.

“It did make me stronger, have better lung capacity and be healthier,” Cotharn said.

Lisbon, she added, was beautiful.

Cotharn said she plans to teach “as long as my body will allow me to. I have the wonderful support of my administrator. The faculty and staff are very helpful.”

She said that, after the accident, “an overpowering thought that kept repeating itself was that I need to be able to show others that even though you have a disability, you can still be someone that can contribute to your community.”

“I hope I’m able at least to impart to them that even through adversity, you can still be successful in your chosen career,” Cotharn said.

“You have to work through that adversity and find a way to use a disadvantage to an advantage that can teach others,” she said.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi...I'm writing to ask if you will please e-mail me with Lisa's e-mail/contact information. God placed her on my heart today...out of the I googled her and Bruce, and I found your blog. My name is Holly Mayes, and I was blessed enough to do my student teaching under Lisa's leadership in Bruceville-Eddy, TX. I've GOT to get in touch with her....I simply cannot believe all that she has been through since I last saw her. I'd appreciate any help you can give me. God bless you and your family... Because of Christ, Holly Mayes