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In 2008, a fall left Kathleen Tevnan with a cracked vertebrae and two options: undergo a quick surgical procedure, or wear a back brace for 4-5 months while her bones healed. Kathleen opted for surgery. What should have been a routine procedure resulted in a devastating surgical error, immediately making Kathleen a T-9 incomplete paraplegic.

A Washington D.C.-based educator in music and visual art, world-traveler and painter, Kathleen describes her injury as “life altering, but not life ending.”

“When I was first hurt, I went to a weekly watercolor painting class, where several retired ladies sat around tables and painted, discussing latest movies, books, restaurants,” said Kathleen. “It was just what I needed at the time, no stress or challenges, but my painting did not improve.”

Kathleen then enrolled in a three-year Master of Arts program, describing it as both a mental and physical challenge.

“The hours spent at the easel embolden me as I understood that though certain avenues may have closed to me, other gorgeous ones have opened,” said Kathleen. “As my experience with painting has grown over the years, so too has my confidence.”

Physically, the building is not accessible, but working with a kind and willing instructor, plus a series of ramps, she made it in. Kathleen is unable to position her chair as close to the easel as she’d like, but despite these challenges, she loves every minute.

After her injury, Kathleen learned to navigate her bustling schedule with the help of her first service dog, Cosmo. Cosmo came to her from Canine Companions for Independence, a non-profit that provides highly trained service dogs to individuals with disabilities free of charge. The organization not only trained Cosmo, but also trained Kathleen to be a competent dog owner, learn commands and assure they both received the best care possible.

“Having the gift of Cosmo during the worst, loneliest, lost, tragic time of my life was the best gift I have ever been given,” Kathleen said. “My dog not only helps me with things I can’t accomplish physically, but serves as a social bridge for others who may not be familiar with a person who uses a chair.”

In early 2020, Cosmo retired from his very important job, and Kathleen was matched with her new sidekick, Lupe. With the help of her Permobil power chair from NSM, Lupe helps Kathleen stay active in her community.

“It’s a huge commitment for a person with a disability to care for a dog, but the rewards are well worth it,” she said. “Lupe keeps me active even when I’d like to stay in bed. Although walking a dog in a power chair doesn’t provide any physical exercise for me, just making sure I’m up, dressed and out rolling through the neighborhood is beneficial for my wellbeing.”

When Kathleen was first injured, she used a manual chair with power assist wheels. While waiting for parts, she borrowed a power chair and realized how much more independent she could be.

“With one hand free, I can tackle hills and ramps, drive in and out of my van no matter how it’s parked, navigate parking lots, streets, curbs and stores,” she said. ”All of that is now within my ability.”

Not only does her chair help her navigate the community, but her personal care at home has been made easier and she experiences less pain overall.

“The addition of a seat elevator was a game changer,” she said. “I could more safely transfer, I could do more cooking and housework. Since I’m an artist, manipulating everything that goes with oil painting is now attainable. Physically, I have no more shoulder or elbow pain, my hands and grip recovered from pushing. It’s so much easier to do pressure relief, and I generally feel better with more energy.”

With her power chair and help from Lupe, Kathleen considers herself 100% independent. She works part time at a local vineyard tasting room while still pursuing her passion for art.

“Using a wheelchair for mobility does not change my intelligence, humanity or feelings. But it does stop me from doing some things I’d like to do on my own,” she said. “I read once that in this world you will need to accomplish 100,000 different things, but in a chair, you may only get to 90,000.”

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