LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 31, 2023) — On Memorial Day of last year, 21-year-old Stanton native Kayla Lacy kicked off the summer season by spending the day out on the river kayaking with some friends. Later that day, the group grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed to one of their houses to swim in the pool.
Lacy was just living another day, as any 21-year-old would. She didn’t know that upon arriving to this house, a freak accident would soon drastically change her life forever.
“Ten minutes after we got there, I put my bathing suit on and dove into the pool,” Lacy said. “When I dove in, I immediately knew I had entered the shallow end by accident. My chin hit my chest and I heard a snap in my neck.”
That’s when Lacy suddenly felt completely numb from her neck down.
“I was floating to the bottom of the pool, and I couldn’t move,” Lacy said. “I was praying to God that someone would see me. It was so dark out, and there was loud music playing. So, I was just praying and praying.”
Suddenly, Lacy begins floating back to the surface of the pool. She heard one of her friends scream.
“They all started jumping in the pool, and pulled me out,” Lacy said. “They sat me straight up and held me up while asking me to move. I cried out, ‘I can’t move, I can’t feel my body, call my mom, call my mom.’”
Lacy’s friends called her mom, and 911. When the ambulance arrived, the EMT immediately knew that this injury was extremely severe. Instead of taking her to the local hospital, they chose to drive her an hour to University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital Emergency Department, the only Level 1 trauma center serving Central and Eastern Kentucky, where Lacy’s mom met her.
“When I arrived in the emergency room, the doctors did some tests,” Lacy said. “They came out and told us that I had shattered my C-5 vertebra, severed my spinal cord, and that there was no chance I’d ever walk again. I was in complete shock.”
Lacy was quickly brought into a four-hour surgery to try to repair her spinal cord. When she came out, she was having trouble breathing, and was going in-and-out of consciousness.
She spent the next 31 days in on of UK HealthCare’s Intensive Care Units.
“The first two weeks we were in the ICU, we didn’t know if she’d make it or not,” said Lacy’s mom, Glenda Morgan. “But I am just thankful that after all of this, she’s still alive. She is so positive and strong.”
Lacy was eventually able to return home, but not without its challenges.
“I used to be able to get up and go,” Lacy said. “But now I’m in a wheelchair and I can’t do that anymore. I’ve had to adjust so much. It’s been eight months since the accident, and my motto has since been ‘disabled but still able.’ And so that’s what I do now.”
Lacy visits the UK HealthCare Outpatient Therapy Clinic, housed in the Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Center in Lexington, twice a week to work on her movement and strength in her arms, core and legs. She sees Rebekah Pinson, UK HealthCare occupational therapist, and Richard Osburn, UK HealthCare physical therapist, who help her move her body and re-gain freedom in her life.
“Kayla’s injury has greatly impacted every aspect of her life,” Pinson said. “She no longer has functional use of her legs and has limited use of her arms and hands, but she is getting stronger every day. She comes in and constantly surprises us with what she can do.”
During each visit, Pinson and Osburn utilize the newly built UK HealthCare rehabilitation gym to help Lacy build muscle and regain movement through resistance training and other mobility exercises that will help Lacy move in and out of her wheelchair, among other weekly tasks. They utilize a variety of devices, such as a hand bike, to push her toward her goals.
The work Lacy puts in is extremely taxing and difficult — yet she remains a positive force. When Lacy comes into the therapy gym, her energy lights up the room.
“Kayla is so much fun,” Pinson said. “She has such a great attitude and will try anything we ask of her. She is highly motivated and such an inspiration. I’m very lucky to be a part of her recovery here at the Outpatient Therapy Clinic.”
“This is a really great rehab center,” Lacy said. “Before I started coming, I couldn’t even lift my head up. It’s unbelievable, my progress, and I’m just so thankful for the therapists that have worked with me.”
Lacy says that the work she does with Pinson and Osburn not only helps her progress physically, but it has helped her mentally as well.
“Seeing how far I have come since I began therapy here in August has really helped me stay positive and keep going,” Lacy said. “Because of the strength in my arms, I’m able to do my own makeup, and because of the strength in my neck, I can do so much as well. I’ve even started teaching myself how to paint by holding the brush in between my teeth. Because being active and creative has always been so important to me, getting the help I need to continue doing these tasks has been great for my mental health.”
In January, Lacy competed in the Ms. Wheelchair pageant and won the title of Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky, part of the Ms. Wheelchair America organization. This platform was specifically made to provide an opportunity for wheelchair users to compete based on advocating for those with disabilities in the community.
“I’m not much of a pageant girl so I didn’t really expect to win,” Lacy said. “I just wanted to do this for fun. But here I am. My platform is to really spread awareness about disabilities. I want to advocate for more handicapped-accessible parking spaces and for small, local hospitals to be more well-equipped to assist people with spinal cord injuries.”
During Lacy’s reign as Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky, she will have public appearances across the state and participate in media opportunities to serve the mission of the national Ms. Wheelchair America organization. Lacy will be competing at the national level on Aug. 28, 2023, for the title of Ms. Wheelchair America in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Ultimately, Lacy’s determination and spirit are the driving force behind her great successes and will continue to drive her through successes in the future, inside and outside of the UK HealthCare Outpatient Therapy Clinic.
“I still get to do my makeup, just in a new way,” Lacy said. “I make TikTok tutorials showing others how they can do their makeup if they have a disability like mine. My hopes are to return to cosmetology school, and of course, to walk again one day. I’d like to be able to walk down the aisle at my wedding — even if I need help or a walker. I know I’m going to do it.”
UK HealthCare is the hospitals and clinics of the University of Kentucky. But it is so much more. It is more than 10,000 dedicated health care professionals committed to providing advanced subspecialty care for the most critically injured and ill patients from the Commonwealth and beyond. It also is the home of the state’s only National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer center, a Level IV Neonatal Intensive Care Unit that cares for the tiniest and sickest newborns, the region’s only Level 1 trauma center and Kentucky’s top hospital ranked by U.S. News & World Report.
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