Someone Strong to Lead the Way by Cindy Barnes Kolbe

Someone Strong to Lead the Way by Cindy Barnes Kolbe

Posted by Community Admin on May 23, 2016 9:43 am

           I drove back from my son’s college concert near midnight. Exhausted, I glanced at my fourteen-year-old daughter, Beth, asleep in the passenger seat. We were only ten minutes from home. I thought I could make it until I heard a road sign flatten on concrete. As the car flipped three times across a bare Ohio field, we left behind an ordinary life.

            I escaped with cuts, bruises, and blood-matted hair, but Beth was another story. A helicopter rushed her to Toledo. A doctor told my husband John that she was paralyzed. When he broke the news, she simply said, “Let’s talk about what I can do.”         

            When I arrived, Beth lay flat, her pretty face swollen, her neck in a brace, in a maze of tubes and wires. She greeted me with a small smile; her usual upbeat attitude was muted but present. I should have felt gratitude for that, but I didn’t. I stared at the girl in the bed, disbelieving. How could she smile at all?

   b4db679f534b9c70d5d60cc52a6115e2-huge-ci       While Beth slept, a surgeon guided me to a chair. He was kind, but his words were devastating. The bones in her neck had shattered. After surgery, he told me that her spinal cord was cut at C6-7. With four damaged limbs, she was a quadriplegic.

            Everything we had hoped for Beth seemed unattainable. My parents walked in her room then stopped, visibly shaken. My usually strong father had tears falling on my shoulder. The only other time I saw him cry was when his father had died. With one mistake, I had hurt everyone I loved.

            Whenever I closed my eyes, I saw the upside-down car where Beth slumped to her stomach on the ceiling, her neck at a disturbing angle. The image haunted me. How easy it would be to lose myself under a blanket of guilt. Instead, I focused on small moments. Beth needed me. I turned her to the side, straightened a sheet, adjusted a pillow, and stayed in sight. She told me in a morphine haze, “I like it when you hold my hand.” Crying quietly, I could not make myself be grateful for the partial feeling in her hands.          

            When Beth transferred to rehab, we shared a room with a girl who made sad sounds in a crib with high sides. She was alone with a brain injury. We met a man with a spinal cord injury who needed a ventilator to breathe. He moved only his head. A teenager with paralysis in his legs refused to get out of bed and moved to a nursing home. He had full use of his hands and arms.

            As physical therapy started, Beth lay face down on her stomach, unable to lift her shoulders off the mat. At all. The therapy session finished with a difficult process to transfer her into a wheelchair. Beth opened her arms and I leaned into a hug. Her bent hand softly patted my back.

            Suddenly, I was grateful for arms and wrists that move. For lungs that breathe on their own. For her ability to feel me pat her back in return.

            My daughterinsisted on a manual wheelchair and on starting her freshman year of high school on time about three months after her injury. The first day, she pushed herself slowly down the halls. Four years later, when she moved into a freshman dorm at Harvard, she needed no personal care assistant, a rare feat for quads.

            Beth’s attitude propelled her forward with me in tow; little by little, I chipped away at my millstone of guilt. Sometimes we need someone strong to lead the way.   

            Today, all I see is what she can do.
Cindy Barnes Kolbe
Peer Mentor

Note: A life-long disability advocate, Cindy Kolbe managed group homes in Ohio and ran a non-profit in Massachusetts. She currently lives in Summerville, SC. Her daughter Beth, a Paralympian, is employed as a health policy lawyer in Washington, DC. Cindy shares her adventures with Beth on her blog at


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Re: Someone Strong to Lead the Way by Cindy Barnes Kolbe

Posted by Dan Gottlieb on Jun 8, 2016 2:12 pm

Hi Cindy,
Dan Gottlieb here. As a psychologist, I tell parents of adult children to simply pay attention, love them and have faith in their own wisdom and resilience. So much more when an adult child becomes ill or disabled. I was a 33 year old maan went I became a quadriplegic. And my parents were so frightened for the next decade that they were never able to appreciate all of my successes and broke my heart to watch them suffer despite my personal joy. Your daughter is fortunate to have a mother who is willing to be led, to be taught by her daughter.

How extremely fortunate for both of you


Re: Someone Strong to Lead the Way by Cindy Barnes Kolbe

Posted by Cindy Kolbe on Jun 9, 2016 11:29 am

Hello Dan!
Thanks so much for the kind words! The first years after accident, we had no idea what the future would hold. Since I couldn't see past my guilt, I trusted Beth to make better decisions than I could. I'm so grateful that she found a way to build a life she loves, as you also have done! I am forever in awe of those who can reimagine the world so effectively!

Thanks also to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation for sharing my article and allowing me to be a small part of their amazing work as a new peer mentor!
All the best,


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