Hear DeWanna Christian’s Courageous Story of Vocational Rehabilitation, Surviving Meningitis and Living to Excel as a Rehabilitation Professional.
Rick Sizemore is the Director of the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center Rick’s Contact info: firstname.lastname@example.org @rickwwrc 540-332-7214.
Anne Hudlow is the Director of the WWRC Foundation. Anne’s Contact info: email@example.com or WWRCF.org.
Chip Stratton is the Director of Safety and Risk Management at WWRC and is available at firstname.lastname@example.org .
DeWanna Christian is available at email@example.com .
Special thanks for Sally Murphy (vocals) and Richard Adams (recording and production) of the VR Workforce Jingle, composed by Rick Sizemore.
Transcript for DeWanna Christian
This is the VR Workforce Studio: Inspiration, Education and Affirmation “AT WORK.” The workforce and disability employment podcast from the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center, A Division of the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Service. The VR Workforce Studio is published by our foundation at wwrcf.org and is available in iTunes and at vrworkforcestudio.com. You are listening to the vrworkforcestudio.
I looked like I had been in a fire. My fingers had shriveled up. So I had… so initially they thought they were going to do umm… amputations, like at the ankles, umm… but then infection set in, so then they had to go, you know, just below the knee. I guess I see them as challenges and I don’t really dwell on them that much so I can’t really pinpoint, but I can tell you there’s challenges every day.
VR Workforce Studio
Rick: On today’s episode of the VR Workforce studio in our big inspiration showcase, the amazing story of DeWanna Christian. Hi, I’m Rick Sizemore, director of the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center.
Anne: And I’m Anne Hudlow, director of the WWRC Foundation, and together, we are opening up the VR Workforce Studio so individuals with disabilities can share their courageous stories of vocational rehabilitation. Along the way, we talk with the champions of business and industry that hire individuals with disabilities.
Rick: And the vocational rehabilitation professionals that have dedicated their lives and careers to helping individuals with disabilities to go to work. And today Anne, I’m so excited. DeWanna Christian is here. Her story will leave you spellbound. Meningitis as a teenager; multiple, radical surgeries required to really save her life. She’s a double amputee, works from a wheelchair and we have her here to hear her amazing story of going to college, learning to drive, and a great career that’s really resulted in being her dream job. Also on today’s program, Chip Stratton joins us in the VR briefing room, after our interview with DeWanna. He is a safety and risk management expert trainer. He’ll be talking with us about emergency preparedness at work and at home for individuals with disabilities. DeWanna Christian leads the Rehabilitation Counseling Division at the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center, is a certified rehabilitation counselor, holds a Master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from Virginia Commonwealth University. DeWanna, welcome to the program.
DeWanna: Thank you.
Anne: DeWanna, you are very successful, but I know that that path to success was not an easy one. Our stories are mainly about disability employment. Can you tell us how you became disabled?
DeWanna: I was a senior in high school and there was an approaching holiday, Valentine’s Day, and you know of course, we do all of the things we do in preparation in high school for Valentine’s Day, I had this network of friends and I went out and bought flowers for them. I had bought carnations for my friends, actually I bought roses for them, but that day I was sick. And it felt like I had the flu, actually the doctor, when we went to the doctor, said I had the flu in the middle of the night because I had other family members that were home, sick from the flu. They just said I had it in my joints. So I didn’t go to school that day, and as the day progressed, I got sicker and sicker. And then I started developing splotches on my leg. And, so my aunt took me back to the hospital, and by the time I got there, we were just around the corner from the hospital, I was… no blood pressure, and umm… feet were swollen, and it was horrible. And they actually took me back immediately, you didn’t have to wait at all in the emergency room on that day, but umm… what ended up happening was they diagnosed me with meningitis. I was the second person in my school to get it. There actually were seven people that ended up getting it. And when I got to the hospital, they sent me over to UVA, and when I got to UVA, they asked me if I knew this one young lady, and she wasn’t in my homeroom, but yeah I knew her, and so, I guess they’re assuming that, you know, they’re trying to figure out ground zero, where it happened at, but umm… it had all happened at school. It ended up that everybody… they ended up closing the school for three days, giving everybody the antibiotic, and then opening it back up. It affected my blood stream like I was on fire from the inside out. Uh… what my family has told me is I blew up, that I had like dark patches that had to be debrided umm… They actually put on the burn unit at UVA. I don’t remember a whole lot, because when I went into the hospital, I went into a coma, and I was actually in a coma for seven days. So, when I woke up, I just thought it was the next day. And because UVA is a teaching hospital, I learned more about what was going on with me. When the doctors would come around, they would staff it and they’d staff it in front of you and I remember the day that they said that I was in a coma, my cousin was there, and I looked at her and was like are they talking about me and she was like yeah, they were afraid to tell me that I was in a coma, but yeah, I had been in a coma for seven days. Umm… woke up, and there was a series of surgeries they had to do. Like I said, I looked like I had been in a fire. My fingers had shriveled up. So I had… so initially they thought they were going to do umm… amputations, like at the ankles, umm… but then infection set in, so then they had to go ,you know, just below the knee and then the final surgery was right at the knee. And on my left hand, they had to attach my left hand, because the skin umm… was so damaged or gone, umm… they attached it to my hip to do the flap for my hand, so umm… and then on the right hand, they did several amputations, but I was left with just enough to be functional, which was good.
Rick: How were you? Take us back to what it felt like during those times, when you were getting this information.
DeWanna: Well, I think… I don’t know. I was always optimistic. Umm… like I said, it was my senior year. I had applied for colleges, so my thing was; well I got to get out, I need to graduate, I need to go to school. Umm…I never thought of feeling defeated. I was actually in the hospital for four months, and then, they did let me out the one day to go home and graduate, actually I moved from the hospital to Kluge that day, but then I went home to graduate and then came back and then started umm… rehab the next day. So I was four months in the hospital and four months in Kluge for rehabilitation. And umm…I just felt like that whole year I was just living holidays in the hospital. So I sort of learned the ropes of how they have, you know, plan developments and team meetings and things, so I started a rumor that I was going home for Halloween cause I thought I’m not gonna stay here for Thanksgiving and Christmas, so I was like what’s the next holiday, well it’s Halloween. So I started a rumor, I’m going home for Halloween. I made this big banner and put it on my door and so they were like guess she wants to go home. (Laughing) So I ended up going home for Halloween. I was starting prosthetic therapy then, but umm… I did go home for Halloween, I mean I went home, was discharged on Halloween and then, the next thing was college, and I had to decide, you know; I wasn’t ready to go to college yet. I was still relearning everything, how to dress, how to get around, stuff like that. So I was able to defer my JMU admission for a year, but I did go to Blue Ridge, and I thought semesters, but no, they had quarters. So I got out of the hospital or of rehab in October, but I had to start school in December. So, I ended up going to school for three quarters at Blue Ridge and then I transferred to JMU.
Rick: So as you’re going through all of this uh… medical, all of these medical procedures, where did you connect with vocational rehabilitation to help you move to college?
DeWanna: I believe it was at Kluge umm… but we still didn’t know all the things DRS could do. And when I first met with the DRS counselor, we were talking about, you know, what my goals were and what I was gonna do, and she didn’t know at that time that I was getting ready to go to college and she’s like oh, we can help you out with that.
Rick: Did the process of becoming disabled shape how you wanted to pursue the courses you wanted to pursue in college?
DeWanna: I wanted to be uh… I knew I wanted to study psychology, so that’s what I did as an undergrad. While I was in college, I remember they did an article… the newsletter did an article with me and wanted to know what I wanted to do next. And I had umm… one summer had done prosthetic therapy here at Woodrow Wilson and had learned how to drive here at Woodrow Wilson, umm… so I was like well, I’m gonna to work at Woodrow Wilson. And so they had put that in the news article and then, once I graduated, I did… I worked… I volunteered down here, and then that opened up an hourly position for me, and then I got that position, and with that, it justified a fulltime classified position and then I applied for that and got that.
Rick: Most everyone knows the movie Frozen and Anne, I think that’s been a pretty popular movie around your home.
Anne: Absolutely. (Laughing)
Rick: Anne and I both have uh… preteen seventh graders, and anyone who has a seventh grader, and many others know the Frozen movie, when that movie was coming uh… through the studio and they were working on it, there was a point when they knew it was gonna be a hit, but it was going through its first critical screening, and so they listed this long list of problems between the characters and how the movie was flowing, and everyone was just tired at a certain point, and the leader in that group said let’s don’t focus on the problems but describe for me your greatest hope and vision for this movie. Take us to the times in your life when you’ve had to not look at the problems and just had to concentrate on your vision for the future.
DeWanna: I guess I see them as challenges and I don’t really dwell on them really that much so I can’t really pinpoint, but there I can tell you there’s challenges every day umm… I just work through them. My family has given me a lot of support, I have a faith in God and umm… I just don’t see… I’m very optimistic, there’s a way to work it out somehow or another. Now umm… here lately, I’ve had to pull on more people for different things umm… because now my aunt and uncle have passed and so I have more of a family uh… family and friend support, like uh… my cousins and stuff like that.
Rick: Let’s talk about your life today. You lead the Rehabilitation Counseling Division at the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center. What obstacles do you have to overcome and what assistive technology do you use to do your daily routines?
DeWanna: Not that many. I think you would call them mostly like universal type things. I don’t use anything in particular to access the computer.
Rick: How do you get around?
DeWanna: Oh, in a motorized wheelchair. (Chuckling)
Rick: Tell us what that’s like at work and other places.
DeWanna: Uh… it’s okay. It’s really good. Your equipment is great when it’s working but when there’s something wrong with it, it does… that’s the challenge, how to overcome that. Like the other week, one morning I come to work, use my van, door opens, I’m fine. I’m getting ready to leave and I have to actually manually engage the door to open, then I get home and I can’t get out of my car! (Chuckling)
Anne: Oh no!
DeWanna: The door won’t open and there’s… I can’t do the manual thing to get it to open for some reason and I’m thinking it’s me, I don’t have the strength to do it umm… luckily my neighbor was bringing her trash out so she opened up the door. But then the next day when I came in here umm… I had to call someone come down and let me out. Well the thing with me not being able to get out of the car was the child proof lock was on and I didn’t know. (Laughing)
Anne: I’ve done that myself, DeWanna. (Laughing)
Rick: You don’t have to be disabled for that to happen.
DeWanna: I know! So he did that and I was like oh okay, okay. (Chuckling) With those types of things you know, and it’s not being afraid to ask for help or assistance when you need it. Like when I go to Wal-Mart or stuff and if I can’t reach something, I’ll ask for help or if I need to get litter or something like that, then you know I’ll tell them I need assistance getting back out to the car.
Rick: I had a chance to talk to some of the staff who work for you and uh… given your hands uh… there’s limited digits on your hands, and yet they describe you as someone who uses the computer very well. Tell us about using the computer in your daily routines.
DeWanna: Yeah, I remember when I was in school, I had this uh… little ThinkPad computer, and my aunt had said – I was writing on paper – and she was like wow this didn’t slow you down, cause I actually only have three fingers. I have the two thumbs and an index. Yeah, and I think someone had brought up maybe trying to do drag and dictate, but I mean I think I’m just as fast with my hands typing.
Rick: You do a great job. You really do a great job. What’s your life like in a wheelchair now and what kind of things scare you about emergencies and being ready and those kinds of things?
DeWanna: The things I get nervous about, I guess, is like, you know, you have the hurricane that’s coming now. Just being prepared, and having groceries, a flashlight. The biggest fear is losing power and losing my cellphone. Losing that connection, you know.
Rick: Because who lives with you?
DeWanna: Oh I live by myself.
Rick: So you’re completely independent?
DeWanna: Mm Hmm.
Rick: Well, we’re very fortunate to have Chip Stratton, uh… who works in Safety and Risk Management and has done so for twenty years. He’s the Emergency Coordination Officer for the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services and serves as the Director of Safety and Risk Management here at the Wilson Workforce Rehabilitation Center. He develops and implements safety and emergency preparedness programs all over the State. Chip is a graduate of Averett University in the Virginia Risk Control Institute, certified as an OSHA General Industry Outreach Trainer and as an American Red Cross Instructor, so we’re talking about somebody who’s spent a lot of time helping individuals with disabilities be ready for emergencies, and uh… hats off to this fine man for twenty years of combined service in the U.S. Navy and the Virginia National Guard where he just finished up as a Sergeant First Class.
Anne: Wow. That’s awesome.
Rick: So thank you for your service to our military, Chip…
Anne: Thank you Chip.
Chip: Thank you all.
Rick: … and welcome to the program.
Chip: Good to be here.
Rick: Chip, what do you think about DeWanna’s readiness and I think you maybe have uh… some tips and techniques for us. What’s uh… what is your reaction to DeWanna?
Chip: Well, absolutely, DeWanna has already admitted that she has to prepare a little bit every day for her condition, for your unique situation umm… and so you do so. And what we have to think about is in a situation such as Hurricane Matthew, and by the way, my youngest son, twenty years old, is named Matthew. When I tell my family about Hurricane Matthew, they think I’m talking about my son…
Chip: … so it’s not my son, Hurricane Matthew, but the actual storm that is pounding forward now.
Rick: But as a dad, it sometimes feels that way.
Chip: It certainly does, it certainly does, but DeWanna, what you really want to keep in mind is how… the preparedness every day has to extend into a preparedness over a number of days if you are unable to have first responders come to your area because they may be responding elsewhere in a widespread disaster and so that preparedness that you already uh… engage in every day just think about; okay how would this look if I was alone in my house for three days. So the first thing to do is be informed, think about the disasters that can impact our area; where you live, where you work, where you visit. You know, if you’re down on the coastline, then you’re probably more at risk of a coastal surge, coastal storms versus, you know, here where inland and the valley, we don’t have to worry about the coastal surge, the flooding from, you know, a flood surge. To be informed is critical. Know what to do. Knowing the best response for your personal circumstance is critical to maintaining your health, safety, and independence and who better to advocate than you, who better to travel that route out of a building where you work than you. To say safety guy, safety officer, you want me to go this way, but it doesn’t work for me, for an example. Make a plan. You mentioned a number of times your friends and family, your support network, so I already know you have a support network, so your plan should include them to say hey if I have a loss of power, like you mentioned, which now, that’s going to affect your power chair, your, your uh… your phone that you mentioned, what’s your backup for that. Know where you are gonna go if you have to up and leave somewhere. If you use Para Transit, maybe you touch base with them and make sure that they are gonna run during an emergency or that they know you’re on the top of, you know, of a list. The local emergency management office, the same thing, let them know who you are, where you are, what your unique circumstances are and needs to possibly get to a shelter. Do you have pets? You mentioned litter.
DeWanna: No, I’m getting ready to get… I’m getting ready to get another cat.
Chip: Okay, you mentioned cat litter, umm…
Rick: You’re a cat lover.
Chip: Yeah, yeah, us too. We’ve had a cat for fourteen years.
Rick: Is there anyone in the podcast studio who does not have a cat at your home?
Anne: I do not have a cat.
DeWanna: Do you have a dog?
Anne: Because I have a crazy dog, so it wouldn’t, it wouldn’t work.
Rick: We’ll find you a cat.
Chip: We can find you a cat.
Anne: I do not have an aversion to cats, I just don’t…
Rick: If you need… if you need a…. if you have a cat that needs a home, Anne is always interested in.
Cat Meowing Sound Effect
Anne: We also have a six year old, so I would give it a few years. I relate to the, the hurricane reference there. (Laughing)
Chip: The cat might not survive. That’s right. So, so include your network, your support group into your plan. Let them, let them how to operate your power chair. I remember I was walking through Rothrock, and one of our clients had a power chair, it was stuck at a very awkward angle, and he just asked me if I could lower it down. Well, I rummaged around, looked around the back, the controls. He was trying to explain it to me, but he couldn’t see, and I ended up having to run and get Larry to help come and… it was almost like the child safety lock, there was an engagement switch somewhere that prevented him from doing anything.
Rick: Isn’t it the simple things that always throw us?
DeWanna: Uh huh.
Rick: It is the simple things, and someone who I look up to and respect a lot just mentioned umm… an often overlooked way to charge a cellphone during an emergency, especially a power outage, is our vehicles. You get in your vehicle and plug it into your car charger.
DeWanna: Oh yeah. I remember that during the, what was it… derento or whatever…
Chip: The derecho, yeah.
Anne: I do that know, because we have middle schoolers that …
Rick: That burn the phones down (Laughing)
…take the chargers and I have to charge mine in the car! (Laughing) There are no more.
Chip: I feel your pain. It gets better as they age. Oh, and then the final thing is a kit and you mention you probably have some items that you keep: food, water, medications, supplies, again being very specific to what you need. You know what a normal day looks like, so now think of what that would look like on an abnormal day and how that might affect you, and be your biggest advocate, you know. You’ve already said you don’t have any problem telling somebody hey I need this, I need that, so continue that. And always practice, it’s always good to practice and get involved. There’s so many organizations that you know, the American Red Cross, the uh… CERT teams, the Civilian Emergency Response Teams, Medical Emergency Response Teams, lots of information where you could advocate for an individual with a disability and, you know, to be included in emergency planning.
Rick: All great tips from Chip Stratton. Now Chip, if someone wants to find out more information, where would you direct them on the net?
Chip: FEMA.gov is an excellent site, full of resources and information. Ready Virginia, I’m particularly fond of that website, that’s a wonderful site as well, and you can get apps for all those. Your local weather stations, your local news stations, I know WHSV TV3 around here is always…
Rick: Has an app.
Chip: …yeah, they’re always pushing their app. So that’s part of the being informed, is, you know, gathering as much information and the ability to have access to that information as possible.
Rick: Well, Chip Stratton, thank you so much for being here. And DeWanna, some of the final thoughts we have uh… about you, because you’re tremendously inspiring to individuals with disabilities, and as you reflect on Chip’s tips and techniques, what would give yourself as a grade for readiness? Are you ready for an emergency?
DeWanna: Maybe a C, cause as you were talking, I was thinking about, okay I need to get a to-go bag with, you know, things in it and…
Chip: Glasses. A lot of us don’t think about our glasses and, you know, if I take mine off, my distance vision is shot. So I try to keep, and they’re an old, crummy set of scratched-up glasses, but I throw them in my bag in case something happens to these, I at least have something to go back to. So something as simple as glasses.
DeWanna: Mm… yeah.
Rick: Well, thank you both for being on the podcast today.
Anne: Thank you all. From a foundation standpoint, I have to say that umm… you are two of the people uh… out of many, that when we have tours and have people in the community that come to the center that have so many positive things to say, you know, you all are… it’s because of you, because of all your hard work and you’re a blessing to have here and I think it’s really great from our standpoint to see all the positive things that are happening here. And DeWanna, your attitude is just incredible and, you know, you live that way and you’re just a pleasure to be around; and you know Chip, I’m able to see you give awards to people in the staff meetings that are doing great things and, you know, it speaks to how wonderful this place is, which is WWRC; it continues to be an inspiration and so do you both, so thank you.
DeWanna: Thank you.
Rick: So as we continue telling the inspirational stories and the courageous stories of vocational rehabilitation, maybe you have an inspiring story you would like to share in the VR Workforce Studio. Please don’t hesitate to contact Anne or myself.
You can find all of our contact information in the show notes at vrworkforcestudio.com and check out the galleries at VR Workforce Studio. We have lots of photographs and in our library, lots of episodes with inspiring stories. So, until next time, I’m Rick Sizemore.
Anne: And I’m Anne Hudlow.
Rick: Sharing the courageous stories of vocational rehabilitation.
Support for the foundation’s publication of the VR Workforce Studio comes from the Manufacturing Skills Institute, providing relevant education and skills training for careers in advanced manufacturing by offering world class training programs through its academic and workforce partners. And the Virginia Manufacturers Association, creating the best business environment in the United States for world class advanced technology businesses to manufacturer and headquarter their companies for maximum productivity and profitability.
VR Workforce Studio: Inspiration, Education and Affirmation “AT WORK.” The workforce and disability employment podcast from the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center, A Division of the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services. The VR Workforce Studio is published by our Foundation at wwrcf.org and is available in iTunes and at vrworkforcestudio.com.
Support comes from CVS Health. CVS Health: Helping people on their path to better health.