By: Carl Berkowitz, TCCC Volunteer
The similarities in strategies used to recover from cancer or a severe accident become apparent within a few minutes of talking with 22 year old Chelsea McClammer and her mother, Tri-Cities Cancer Center Oncology Nurse Supervisor Rebecca Bowie. Chelsea was in an automobile accident 16 years ago that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Today this mother-daughter pair can share many lessons on how to cope with life changing events.
Rebecca speaks with pride about Chelsea’s tenacity and hard work, and how they have produced amazing results. Chelsea was the youngest member of the U.S Paralympics in 2008 and recently came back from the 2016 Rio Paralympics with two silver medals and a bronze. Her competitive spirit has taken her to other track events not only in South America, but throughout North America, Oceania, Europe, and China. She’s now in her final semester at the University of Illinois Champagne-Urbana, the first school in North America to have full campus access for disabled students and a school that has produced hundreds of Paralympic medalists.
While it was Chelsea’s nature to be tenacious and to work hard, she in turn is quick to credit Rebecca for helping her adjust to the unexpected challenge that life threw at her. “Mom never let me have time to mope. As soon as I was able, she enrolled me in art classes, piano and flute lessons, baton twirling and even beauty pageants. I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself.”
Reflecting on the events of 16 years ago, Rebecca recalled other advice she shared with Chelsea and still shares today with her patients. “What we told Chelsea and what we would tell our patients is to work towards recovery, one day at a time. Their job is to work with us in fighting their cancer just like it was Chelsea’s job to get back to living a full life, one day and even one moment at a time.”
Rebecca encourages Chelsea and her patients to keep searching for solutions to challenges brought about by their situations. Cancer survivors often need to develop new dietary habits or find ways to carry out acts that once were second nature. Chelsea continues to face issues even years after her accident. “Just finding a gym where I could work out when visiting family in the Tri-Cities was a challenge. Not all fitness facilities have enough space between their equipment to let wheel-chair users maneuver.” But she kept looking and is now doing her winter workouts at The Tri-City Court Club. “I even found coaches, like tennis pro Patti Kirch, who helped me develop skills I never could have on my own.”
Feeling like she had become a burden to her family brought about a feeling of guilt for Chelsea in her early days, is something Rebecca occasionally sees in newly diagnosed cancer patients. But she notes that “There needn’t be any feeling of guilt when asking for or receiving assistance. We don’t want people to feel like they’re a burden. All her family and friends wanted to help Chelsea. And, in the same way, all of us at the Cancer Center want to help our patients.”
Today Chelsea and Rebecca both work with others who are going through difficult times, Rebecca at the Cancer Center and Chelsea through informal coffee shop meetings with other adolescents and young adults. Chelsea’s long term professional goal is to become an injury rehabilitation counselor so she can continue to share the medical knowledge and her personal experiences with others. “I see how my mother helps others and know that this is a great way to keep your problems in perspective.”
Learn more about Chelsea’s accomplishments at http://www.teamusa.org/para-track-and-field/athletes/Chelsea-McClammer