Queen in Camo: Ashlee Lundvall Shares Her Story After Paralysis
Editor’s Note: Ashlee Adkins Lundvall was born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana. As a true 6 foot, 2 inch Hoosier girl, she played volleyball, basketball, fast pitch softball and slow pitch softball. Ashlee always participated in some type of sport year-round. With her outgoing personality and good looks, she had a very active social life, had a boyfriend and was living the dream of every high school teenage girl.
After finishing her sophomore year with big plans for her junior year in high school, Ashlee went to a 3-week camp in Cody, Wyoming, where girls from all over the county came to this working ranch. All the girls had chores. After the chores were done, they enjoyed horseback riding, backpacking, rodeoing and other fun activities.
A Day She’d Never Forget on the Ranch
On Monday morning, August 2, 1999, Ashlee Lundvall got up early like she did every morning and headed for the lower corrals on the ranch. Then tragedy struck. Ashlee fell off a hay rack, landed on the handle of a pitch fork on her T12 vertebra and damaged her spinal cord.
“When I was told that I would spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair, I thought I’d just been issued a death sentence,” Ashlee recalls.
“Besides being an athlete, I loved camping and hiking, being outdoors, going to parties with my friends and doing all the things that 16 year old high school girls enjoy doing. When I got my “life in a wheelchair” news, I believed all the stereotypes of people in wheelchairs who had paralysis. I thought…
* “They never left the house.
* “They didn’t have social lives.
* “They weren’t active in the outdoors.
* “No one ever would love me.
* “I was destined to spend my life alone.”
Ashlee’s Wake-up Call
For more than 3 months after her accident, Ashlee was depressed and angry and believed her world had come to an end. She grieved the end of the happy, active, athletic, outdoor lifestyle that she believed had been stolen from her. “After I finished 2 months of rehabilitation in Billings, Montana, I was flown back to Indianapolis to complete my rehabilitation,” Ashlee reports. “I then had several more physical problems besides my spinal cord injury that put me back in the hospital. I hit one of my lowest points of feeling sorry for myself and thinking my life was over. A big, dark cloud seemed to be sitting on top of me, and it wouldn’t go away.
“One morning when I had had a bad experience with one of the nurses, I wasn’t feeling good, and I had been crying a lot. My dad came in my room, sat down beside me and told me honestly that he and my mother were physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. He said he didn’t know how much more he and my mom could take of all my problems.
“Those words were like a slap in my face. I never even had considered how much my accident had affected other people – not just me.”
My family, my friends, my school, my neighborhood and my community were all impacted by what had happened to me. Even more importantly I realized was, how was I dealing with my injury? That one short talk my dad had with me caused me to realize that my bad attitude wasn’t only hurting me. It was hurting the people I cared about and loved.
That was when I decided to make the best of what I perceived to be a bad situation. That resolution set me on the path to become the best I possibly could be in the future. Because I had been so selfish about the way I felt about myself, and I was so angry at the situation that I now found myself in, I couldn’t see a future. I was only focused on myself. After my dad talked to me, I realized I had to show other people that a person could get past this type of tragedy. I changed my mind about how I looked at my accident.”
Ashlee decided that the most important thing for her to do immediately was to return to high school and start interacting with her friends again. “I realized that I needed to focus all my attention on being tutored and getting back on track with my education. Then, I could graduate from high school with my classmates.”
As Ashlee studied and worked to improve academically and mentally, her next big fear was: “How will my friends and teachers treat me? I was the life of the party, and now I am the girl in the wheelchair. I went to a very small private school, and our school never before had had a student in a wheelchair.”
“Learning how to deal with me and my wheelchair presented a learning experience for everyone in my family, my circle of friends, my community and the school. The school became accessible for me, and my friends and teachers were open and accepting of me. I was treated wonderfully. I never had to worry about bullying or being treated any differently because I was in a wheelchair.”
“Here’s the really strange thing. Before my accident, I was the life of the party. When I got back to the school, I was the life of the party, but in a different way. Although my friends didn’t always exactly know what I was going through while getting accustomed to my new life in a wheelchair, they were very supportive. They included me in all the activities at school and after school.”
Ashlee’s Education & Training After Paralysis
“Before my accident, my dream was to graduate from high school, go to college, study pre-med, get accepted to medical school and become an orthopedic surgeon,” Ashlee says. Because of her competitive nature and her willingness to push herself, Ashlee used what she had learned from sports to push herself to try and become what she wanted to be – an orthopedic surgeon. After graduation from high school, she started college as a pre-med major.
“I discovered quickly that I was trying to become an orthopedic surgeon for all the wrong reasons,” Ashlee explains. “I had taken on the challenge of the medical profession just to prove to everyone that I still could be an orthopedic surgeon. I’ve always been a person who if someone tells me I can’t do something, those words will make me want to do it even more than I’ve wanted to when I’ve started out. I’ve learned a lot from my accident.”
After my first semester in college, one of the things I learned was that often to survive, you had to reinvent yourself.
“I still believe I could have become an orthopedic surgeon. But when I began to look inward and ask myself why I had chosen this career path, the medical dream didn’t look the same as it did when I was able-bodied.”
Since Ashlee understood what life in a wheelchair was like, and she knew so many places that weren’t accessible, she decided she’d go to law school, get a law degree and shut down every business that wasn’t accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, after considering this new career path of law, Ashlee realized if she became a lawyer and attacked the world, although she probably would make a lot of money, once again, she’d be going into a new career path for all the wrong reasons.
“So, I began to consider what would’ve really helped me after my accident,” Ashlee says. “What was the most important thing I wanted to know? What would have helped me come out of my depression and be able to see that the world had changed, but it hadn’t necessarily changed for the worst?
“I decided that one of the biggest things missing after my accident was that I didn’t have anyone who had been through an injury like mine I could talk to who could help me understand how to get through everything related to my injury, although my friends were great, my family was wonderful, and my doctors and nurses were terrific.”
“So, I started looking into different counseling programs to learn what would be required to get a master’s degree in counseling and especially what I would have to do to get a master’s degree in biblical counseling. I thought that becoming a counselor and being able to use my faith would be what I needed to do. I thought that being trained to talk to people who had injuries similar to mine and being able to help them deal with the issues they might have might be just what I needed to become.
I would’ve loved to have had a counselor in a wheelchair like me – someone who could help me deal with everything.
I wanted to be that person who could look an individual in the eyes and say, ‘I know what you’re going through, because I went through the same thing.’ And, because I was in a wheelchair just like them, they would understand that I did know what they were going through, and I could help them.”
Ashlee received her undergraduate degree in public affairs and civic leadership, because she thought she could serve and be helpful in her community without narrowing down her career choices. In 2007, Ashlee got into a master’s degree program at Maranatha Baptist College, which meant she’d have to move away from home. For the first time since her accident, she would have to live totally independent.
“As I was taking my counseling courses, I realized that to be an effective counselor I just couldn’t totally counsel the person who had been through the accident or the bad diagnosis,” Ashlee says. “I had to be ready, willing and able to counsel with family members and friends, answer questions and offer solutions to problems they might have in dealing with their loved ones’ situations. I learned that counseling for family and friends could bring complete healing after a tragedy.”
When Ashlee decided to serve others instead of feeling sorry for herself, her life completely changed.
She got married, moved to Cody, Wyoming, had a child and won the 2013 Ms. Wheelchair USA contest. Her platform was making the outdoors more accessible for all Americans. According to Ashlee, “For me, the most important thing the pageant did was that it provided a time and place for women in wheelchairs to meet and get to know each other. Meeting other women in wheelchairs was important to me, because in Wyoming where I lived, the only people in wheelchairs I knew were guys, which was great when I was hunting, camping or 4-wheeling.
But if I ever wanted to call up a girlfriend and ask her about disability girl stuff, I didn’t have a friend I could call. My family and friends started encouraging me to participate in this pageant. I decided to go to the pageant to network, and hopefully make some lady friends in wheelchairs.
Once I got to the pageant, I was completely blown away about how wrong I was about the Ms. Wheelchair USA pageant. Most of the women weren’t all about outward appearances and were very empowered and empowering. These ladies showed me a wide variety of opportunities they had in their communities that I never had considered. They also taught me how to become an advocate for people in wheelchairs.
I decided that if I wheeled away from the pageant with no awards, I still had been highly successful. I had learned so much about myself, and what I could be doing back in my community. When I was crowned Ms. Wheelchair USA, I was as surprised as everyone else. I was so thankful and appreciative of just being there.”
Ashlee Lundvall’s Life Today
“Right now, I’m a stay-at-home mom with our 4-year-old daughter Addison,” Ashlee explains. “We’ve started home schooling her. I also have a speaking ministry. I travel all over the country giving motivational speeches at inspirational speaking events. I’m trying to get more involved in the outdoor industry, speaking to more people about how I’m involved in hunting, the outdoors and the benefits I’ve received from my involvement there, and what I’ve learned in the outdoors.
I also teach computer classes for the local college we have in Cody. I’ve always been a computer nerd, and I really enjoy teaching. I have a background in tutoring, and I enjoy that profession also. I’ve just become a columnist for “Able Outdoors,” a magazine that will launch this year. I really enjoy writing and keeping up with my blog and my YouTube channel that I started with an antelope hunt I went on last fall. I was using a GoPro camera that I wore on my forehead the entire time I hunted.
“This summer I plan to post more videos about all the things I do as a wheelchair user. Often, people have questions about life in a wheelchair. I can tell them about what I do and how I do it, but I think more and more people have become very visual. They prefer to see how something is done rather than read about it. I plan to use my camera to show people how I’ve designed my home, how I work in my kitchen, how I get in and out of my car, how I parent as a wheelchair user, and how I take my daughter to the grocery store with me and run errands with her. I’ll be recording all my daily activities as a wheelchair user as well as my outdoor activities.
“After I won Ms. Wheelchair USA in 2013, I started my blog at www.crownandcamo.blogspot.com. My YouTube channel is Ashlee Lundvall, my website is www.ashleelundvall.com, on twitter- @crownandcamo, and my email is email@example.com.
Additional Resources From Wheel:Life on Relationships
Within Reconnecting: Relationship Advice from Wheelchair Users, readers will hear from people who use wheelchairs as they share their perspective on friends, family and relationships including dating, marriage and parenting.
Author Lisa Wells shares real-life examples and success stories throughout the book based on her lengthy career that includes ongoing interactions with disability advocates, non-profit supporters and peer support group members.
Reconnecting: Relationship Advice from Wheelchair Users features interviews with:
- Graduate student & quadriplegic Ather Sharif about connecting on a college campus
- Amputee Thomas Morris on connecting through his unique appearance and personality
- NSCIA [Buffalo, NY chapter] President Natalie Barnhard who connects Wheels with Wings
- Paraplegic Todd Robinson who explains his family connection through the joy of adoption
- Quadriplegic Ashleigh Justice who connects on the quad rugby field and as a young mother
About the Author: John E. Phillips
For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.