For paralyzed Army veteran Twila Adams, it was unacceptable to envision her life under a doctor’s dim prognosis that emphasized all of the things she could no longer do. Instead, she set out on a mission to prove that prognosis wrong and has transformed both her life and the lives of many of her fellow disabled veterans in the process.
Twila served in the Army from 1980 to 1991, including Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations in Kuwait and Iraq, ending her career as a sergeant. A few years later, in 1994, she broke her neck in a car accident and became a quadriplegic, initially only able to move her mouth and eyes.
A lifelong resident of Charlotte, N.C., Twila’s passion to help the elderly and disabled in her area started even before her injury. In 1991, she started her own business providing mobile manicures, pedicures and Reiki to the sick, seniors and disabled confined to their homes, hospitals and nursing homes. Even following her injury, Twila’s clients continued calling to schedule appointments.
“At the time, I couldn’t even squeeze a nail clipper,” she says. “I continued to practice on people to at least squeeze a nail clipper, and that was what drove me to push forward.”
In 2002, Twila attended her annual exam at the veterans’ hospital in Richmond, VA, where a recreational therapist told her about wheelchair sports. “I was sitting in her office, and she asked if I wanted to go to the Wheelchair Games,” Twila says. “I asked her what sports I could do, and she said, ‘Anything.’”
It was at her first National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2002, that Twila witnessed the range of sports that were available to her from her wheelchair. And it was then that she realized she wanted to be on the board of Paralyzed Veterans of America, an accomplishment she achieved within the Southeast chapter in 2008 and 2010.
“I’m so grateful to Paralyzed Veterans and those in Richmond who saw the need and understood the importance of being active and the camaraderie that is necessary for all of us who serve. The civilian world doesn’t understand how we operate. None of us have taken life for granted. We are moving forward and working with what we have.”
Twila has since competed in five National Veterans Wheelchair Games, competing in sports like billiards, trap shooting and bowling and has won medals in all of her events. In 2002, she was the first woman ever to win the Sportsmanship Award at the Paralyzed Veterans of America National Trap Shoot Competition.
In 2011, Twila discovered tennis, and after getting a specialized wheelchair for tennis earlier this year, she attended an adaptive tennis camp in San Diego, where she played every day.
“Tennis has become my favorite sport because it’s a lot like running,” she says. “It’s so challenging because learning how to push my chair as a quad was my biggest obstacle. It offers so much more than just competitiveness because I am able to do drills, be out in the elements and feel like I’m running again.”
Twila’s selfless and indomitable spirit is reflected in her drive to stay active not only for herself but also as an inspiration to others. “I’m reminded that I’m not doing this for me; I’m doing this for someone else,” Twila says. “When others see me in my chair, they’re going back to tell their loved ones about what I can do.”
Read more about adaptive sports programs from Paralyzed Veterans of America
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.