KNIGHTDALE — Rachelle Friedman plans to have her nails painted, skin tanned and hair styled today.
The 25-year-old won't be able to outstretch her fingers, rotate her body for tanning spray or put the finishing touches on her long blond locks. It's not exactly how she imagined preparing to tie the knot.
But she'll receive all the help she needs to make her dream of marriage become reality. Friedman will wed Chris Chapman at 11 a.m. Friday at the Fearrington House in Pittsboro, a year after a life-altering injury left her unable to walk down the aisle.
"At this point, I don't care if the whole world knows I'm getting extensions," she said. "I just can't wait for (the wedding) to finally happen."
The Knightdale couple have waited longer than most.
After growing up in the same neighborhood in Virginia Beach, they met for the first time at East Carolina University, where they fell in love. They were together almost five years before planning to marry on June 27, 2010. But their plans were derailed about a month before the scheduled ceremony.
Friedman and four friends had just returned from dance clubs to a friend's house in Virginia Beach about 1:30 a.m. on May 23, 2010. It was Friedman's bachelorette party.
"Our first thought was to go swimming," Friedman recalls. "So, I went upstairs and changed quickly."
What started as teasing turned to playful roughhousing.
And before she realized what happened, Friedman was face-up in the water after a friend's playful push landed her awkwardly in the shallow end of a pool.
"I immediately knew something was wrong," she said.
Everything put on hold
Chapman was camping at the Eno River State Park in Durham when his bride-to-be was rushed to a hospital. Doctors told Friedman she would be permanently paralyzed before Chapman was able to make it to her side.
Photo appointments and flower arrangements quickly took a backseat.
Friedman found herself confined to the first floor of her Knightdale home.
"I didn't know if I'd be able to ever have a wedding," she said.
Medical bills replaced RSVPs on her countertops.
The cost of treatment after the accident exceeded $300,000. She doesn't qualify for Medicaid, she says.
"I assumed I would qualify for Medicaid. I didn't make as much as a teacher makes - but I don't (qualify)," Friedman says.
Help from strangers
Yet, in two days, her big day will finally arrive. The couple will then travel to Las Vegas and Fiji for their honeymoon - all expenses paid.
Various media broadcast Friedman's tale in the weeks after her accident. NBC's "The Today Show" was even a sponsor for renovating the couple's Knightdale home to suit Friedman's needs. The attention prompted a call to Friedman from 1-800-Registry, an online wedding-advisory service, which offered to pay for her "dream" wedding and honeymoon. It's the first time the company has reached out in such a way. It's footing the bill for music, food, decorations, accommodations, photos, tuxes and even Friedman's original gown - which has been shortened and opened up in the back.
"It was going to be a beautiful wedding, but it wasn't spectacular," Friedman said of her original plans to wed at a waterfront venue in Virginia Beach. "This is more of a fairy tale wedding. It's going to be crazy amazing."
Standing by her friend
Despite many changes, the cast remains the same. Friedman's father will push her wheelchair down the aisle. Also, flanking the bride at the alter will be the bridesmaid whose push landed Friedman in the pool.
"We've gone through this together," Friedman said of her friend, whose identity she says she'll never reveal. "Just how Chris and I have proven and strengthened our love through this, (the bridesmaid) and I have done so with our friendship."
Friedman and Chapman have used her rehabilitation as a bonding experience.
"When she started rehab, she was in a power chair learning the basics of how to control it," Chapman says.
Friedman has no leg or finger functions, and she has limited ability in moving her arms.
Yet in the last year, Friedman has gone from learning how to pick up a fork to using a manual wheelchair. She has recently learned how to transfer herself from the wheelchair to her bed and couch.
"That's something she really wanted," Chapman said of Friedman's progress with the wheelchair. "Each step is another direction toward independence."
Her next goal is to drive again.
She also plays league wheelchair rugby on the Raleigh Sidewinders. Wheelchair rugby is played on a basketball court. Cones are set up as goals at each end. The two teams of four try to wheel between the cones on the other teams' end to score.
"It's a pretty physical sport," said Chapman, who's a referee.
Friedman, a former dance and aerobics instructor, and Chapman say their hopes for a physically active marriage haven't changed.
"We've always been an athletic, outdoorsy couple," Chapman said. "That won't change."
Instead of playing tennis, the couple now play wheelchair tennis. Instead of going on hiking trips, they plan to go on car-side camping trips.
Their plans for children haven't changed either.
Losing the experience of motherhood was one of the first worries that crossed Friedman's mind.
"As far as we've been told, she can still have kids," Chapman said. "She'll have to have more regular checkups, and she won't be able to feel the baby kick or things like that, but we still plan on having kids - a long time from now."
The rest of their lives
In the meantime, the couple are focused on other goals.
When they return home from Fiji, Chapman will resume normalcy at his job as a science teacher at Southern Nash Middle School. Friedman will set her sights on southern California, where she'll travel in September for a three-week rehabilitation session.
A foundation named Walking with Anthony in Beverly Hills, Calif., has paid for the trip.
Friedman is encouraged by the support of friends and strangers. But she's keeping her expectations in check.
"People often tell me, 'If anyone's going to walk it's going to be you,' " Friedman said. "Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. I have to be realistic."
A doctor told Friedman that she has a 5 percent chance of walking again.
"I think he was just being nice," she said. "But I'm determined to try."
The man soon to be standing at the altar with her thinks "the sky is the limit" for what his bride can accomplish.
Yet his commitment remains the same - for better or worse.
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