Four years ago, Kelly Dowless went to the hospital with few worries.
Her legs were weak, which puzzled the then 31-year-old schoolteacher, but the pain was minimal. She wasn’t too concerned.
“I thought they’d give me some medication and I’d go home,” she said.
The diagnosis, however, was serious. A rare neurological disorder called transverse myelitis was damaging her spinal cord and causing her condition to worsen almost by the minute.
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Her mother, Marilyn Pearce, recalls her daughter walking on the Sunday morning two days after entering the hospital. By that same afternoon, Dowless was paralyzed from the chest down.
“It moved so quickly,” Pearce said.
Within a matter of hours, the sudden paralysis, caused by inflammation of the spinal cord, changed her life as the “regular mom,” as Dowless puts it.
No longer could she easily slip into her daughter’s room to read a “Junie B. Jones” bedtime story. Cooking was more hazardous; cleaning the house was more difficult.
“She had to go through a period of mourning because she lost the ability to walk, and it changed her entire life,” her mother said. “She had to become dependent on people.”
Dowless said it took her six months to a year after leaving the hospital to find her “new life,” one that she said is rooted in faith and family. Today, instead of teaching the ABCs at West View Elementary School in the Cleveland community, she teaches about Jesus at her church in Raleigh. And while managing pain is an everyday chore, medication allows her to keep up with her kids’ busy schedules.
Dowless wants others stricken with the same disease to realize that it can’t touch their spirit. She’ll have a chance to do that next year during the inaugural “Barefoot for Kelly” road race in Raleigh.
The race, organized by friend and fellow church member Kelley Blas, will look to raise money and awareness for transverse myelitis.
Proceeds from the race, scheduled for July 11 on the Dorthea Dix campus, will also help pay for a new handicap-accessible shower in the Dowless home, something Blas said her friend desperately needs.
“The first thing Kelly said is that she didn’t want it to be about her; she wanted it to be about everyone else,” Blas said. “She is so humble.”
But Blas said Dowless’s husband, Ronald, who had lifted his wife in and out of the shower since she became paralyzed four years ago, recently injured his back. That makes things around the house harder.
“They really need the help,” she said.
Money is tight
During the past four years, medical bills and other monthly obligations have stretched the family’s dollars thin.
Ronald took on odd jobs and started part-time work to earn a little extra cash, but that money helps pay for their kids’ activities.
“We don't have the money to make the home accessible,” Dowless said.
After spending four months in the hospital in 2010, Dowless said, she returned to a home not equipped for someone in a wheelchair. She’s adjusted, but the family can’t afford the improvements that would make mobility easier, she said.
Her wheelchair, for instance, can’t fit into the shower, so making it to a bench in the tub can be challenging. Ronald still helps with that, but his back injury makes it tough, Dowless said.
“He used to pick me up like Superman and put me wherever I need to be,” Dowless said. “He was my Hercules.”
Social network support
Dowless doesn’t have as much trouble maneuvering around her living room or foyer, which is lined in Christmas cards this year.
Some of the cards, like the one from SheShe in Canada or the one from Meiling in Hawaii, traveled hundreds of miles before arriving at her home off of Cleveland Road.
After rolling her wheelchair next to the card display, Dowless opened one and smiled. It was from a 6-year-old with transverse myelitis who, Dowless said, signed the card with a mouth pen.
Dowless organized the Christmas card exchange among members of a transverse myelitis, or TM, support group on Facebook. She said the Facebook group played a large role in her recovery, both physically and emotionally.
Pulling up the page on her phone, Dowless read a post.
“I’m so happy that I get to slowly piece my way back together into something that resembles normalcy,” Dowless read, as she started to cry. “I sure do miss the old me.”
Dowless has written similar posts.
“We kind of get on there and say, ‘Is this normal?’ or ‘Has anyone ever experienced this?’ ” Dowless said. “But we also get on there to complain and vent so they don’t vent to family.”
For more information on the “Barefoot for Kelly” road race, go to www.runnc.com/e/Barefoot-for-Kelly-5K.