Cassidy Almquist’s roughly 10-foot walk from her wheelchair to the podium at her high school graduation in June was not a planned event.
She had taken steps, few and infrequent at first, for months in therapy but not yet in public.
But she told her parents that morning that not only did she want to sing during the ceremony, she wanted to stand free of the wheelchair she’s been using since breaking her spine two years ago.
“There were a lot of tears,” her mother, Kari Almquist, said of those who watched her daughter, amazed she was walking before them.
That day wasn’t easy.
“I didn’t think I was going to be that nervous,” she recalled. “I was shaking a lot.”
Ultimately her father, Mark Almquist, had to help her move her legs so she could reach her goal.
Cassidy, now 19, is working, driving her own car and recently released a collection of covers of six worship songs she sang with her boyfriend, Jantzen Filbrun.
But graduation day was a microcosm of Cassidy’s life since the accident: confidence and hope to push forward and one day be as if she was never injured — tempered by the reality that she’s still in physical therapy — still spending much of her day in a wheelchair, still feeling the trauma of her weeks in the hospital and loss of some of her independence.
“I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me,” she said. “But it’s not always easy.”
The long road of therapy
Cassidy was working at the Bar M Ranch in Eastern Oregon in July 2013 when she fell 40 feet from a swing. She fractured her pelvis, broke her right leg and crushed her right elbow. She also broke vertebrae in her spine, but her spinal cord remained intact.
Her parents said she was improperly fitted for a harness, causing her to fall from the swing's starting platform.
Cassidy was hospitalized for about a month at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center. Her shattered bones were pieced back together with metal wire and rods.
While surgeons cleared her just a year after her injury, she’s been in physical therapy ever since, working to strengthen her pelvis and other bones. She’s regularly gone to Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland locally but also sought treatment outside the region.
In February 2014, local Shriners and other supporters paid to fly her down to Northern California Shriners Hospital for Children in Sacramento, known for its work on spinal cord injuries. She was fitted for special full-leg braces and took her first assisted steps there.
In the fall of 2014, her family learned of Project Walk, a California-based physical therapy center specializing in paralysis cases. She went there once a month for up to two weeks at a time for several months.
Then her boyfriend heard about Adapt Training outside Portland from a fishing boat captain while on vacation. Cassidy moved her treatment there.
“The last time I was there I got to use a punching bag. I was so excited,” she said. “But they said I had to walk over to it and I had to stand and try to put power into a punch. That was hard but it was really fun.”
Cassidy also participates in horse therapy at Strides Therapeutic Horsemanship Center in Mesa as a means of regaining her sense of balance.
Regaining her independence
After the accident Cassidy and her family hoped she’d be able to return to Southridge High School for at least the latter half of her senior year. Her treatment prevented that from happening and she wasn’t able to walk with her class. Cassidy began to look at obtaining a GED instead.
Three Rivers HomeLink in Richland, where she previously attended school, reached out. School officials said they could help Cassidy earn a high school diploma as she wasn’t missing too many credits. She enrolled in online courses for math, language arts and a few other subjects.
“It took a while to get used to doing school while going to California and then Portland (for therapy),” she said. “My counselor was understanding but she was on top of me.”
She’s been offered a one-year scholarship to Gather 4 Him Bible college in Richland, but Cassidy said she’s taking at least a year off from school to focus on her physical therapy. She’s also holding down a job as an administrative assistant for Hanford contractor Mission Support Alliance, which she was offered after her boss saw her sing at a Christmas party in 2014.
She drives to work in her own four-door Subaru, using hand controls on the steering column to control the brakes and accelerator.
“It was like letting go again,” Kari Almquist said. “She’d become dependent on us. But it’s nice for her to be able to take her sister to volleyball, go out with her friends or drive herself to therapy.”
Music was one of the first things Cassidy returned to after waking up in the hospital, singing along to her boyfriend’s guitar from her bed. It’s still a big part of who she is. She and Filbrun recorded their six-song collection at Extraction recording studio in Kennewick with friends providing instrumentation.
While already up on iTunes, she’s also ordered 1,000 CD copies, complete with cover art she designed. Roughly half have already been spoken for, though some will be available for sale through her website.
Honest about the future
All that progress has been accompanied by a lot of strife and resignation. It’s unclear how much mobility Cassidy will ever regain; her doctors said where people are two years after being injured is typically —but not always — the threshold.
“There are people who seven years after being injured, they walk,” she said.
All the help she’s received from therapists and rehabilitation centers has come at a price. Support for the family poured in after Cassidy was injured. Tens of thousands of dollars were collected from fundraisers, much of that going to making the Almquist home wheelchair-accessible. The family continues to be grateful for that help.
But the family’s insurance has been largely maxed out and won’t cover most of her visits to Kadlec therapists — which cost hundreds of dollars an hour — or any of her horse therapy. The same goes for her treatment in California and in Portland.
The family has settled with the insurers of the camp and the church that runs it, but that money won’t go far in covering Cassidy’s long-term needs. The family still has a lawsuit pending against the company that made the harness she fell out of.
Then there are Cassidy’s less-visible wounds. She was nervous about the two-year anniversary of the incident, she said, afraid of the memories it would conjure of her weeks in the hospital. She has striven to put on a happy face, not wanting others to feel sorry for her. But she’s realized she has to be honest with people, too.
“When I am invited to go to places my first reaction is ‘yes, I’d love to’ but then I think ‘are there stairs, can I get to a bathroom?’” she said.
But being upfront about the present conditions of Cassidy’s life doesn’t mean she doesn’t have one, her mother said.
“I think her story is a huge encouragement to people who have been tragically injured,” Kari Almquist said. “You can still shine and live an amazing life.”
And it doesn’t take much to make Cassidy remember that doors are still open in her future.
“It’s kind of amazing, I have songs on iTunes,” she said, smiling. “The future is bright.”