Standing on her boyfriend’s pool deck on July 4, senior Michaela Bushey made a split-second decision that changed the course of her life.
Bushey, a former lifeguard, dove into the shallow water of the above-ground pool. After hitting her head on the bottom of the pool, Bushey floated on the water’s surface. Her eyes were wide open, but everything else was numb.
“I had done a million shallow dives before in my life,” Bushey said. “What was different about that time, I’ll never know.”
Following the accident, Bushey has faced a difficult road to recovery but one that has been motivated by family, friends and even strangers, both in Au Sable Forks, N.Y., her hometown, and at Ithaca College.
The assistance began almost immediately when her boyfriend, senior Kyle Devins, an athletic training major, helped Bushey out of the water and stabilized her while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
“I didn’t believe it at first,” he said. “Then I was trying to do and think of ways that I could help Michaela and exactly what she needed. So at the time it happened, I’m sure I sounded calm and everything because I was supporting her … and telling her that everything was going to be OK.”
After the accident, Bushey was taken to the emergency room at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh, N.Y., with an incomplete spinal cord injury. Bushey could breathe, hear and see, but she could not move. Because CVPH did not have the resources to care for Bushey, she was transported to Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, Vt.
Devins spent the night at Fletcher Allen and recalled being scared for Bushey, his girlfriend of more than four and a half years whom he met in high school.
“I was praying over and over again that she was going to be OK,” he said. “It was a mixture of disbelief and fear and a lot of different things — mostly disbelief and fear.”
The next morning, a titanium rod was inserted into Bushey’s neck to connect and stabilize three of her vertebrae.
After she was released from the surgical intensive care unit at Fletcher Allen on July 19, Bushey was airlifted to the Shepherd Center, a spinal cord injury rehabilitation center in Atlanta, Ga. While Bushey was staying at Shepherd, Jessica Douglass, a neighbor whom Bushey said she hardly knows, and Melissa Walton, another local, organized a benefit for Bushey at the American Legion post in her hometown. The benefit created the Michaela Rose Bushey Trust Fund, which the family has used to cover expenses not covered by the family’s insurance policy.
On Sept. 23, Bushey was discharged from Shepherd with some movement in her right bicep and returned home. Bushey has since engaged in physical and occupational therapy, both at her home and at CVPH.
Bushey said she has no recollection of the first three weeks after the injury because she was taking so many medications, but she does remember not wanting to talk about the accident in the following days.
“It was just awful because life is sort of turned upside down,” she said. “You go from being this completely independent, capable person to not being able to do anything.”
However, as she spent more time at Shepherd, Bushey said she was increasingly grateful to still be alive. Today, though she frequently wishes she could go back and change the course of events, Bushey said she’s accepted the circumstances and is already moving on.
“You can let the injury rule you, or you can rule the injury,” she said. “This is an awful thing that’s happened — it is. But if I keep dwelling on it and just let it ruin my life … yeah, I could do that, but it’s not going to help anything.”
Bushey’s commitment to recovery has paid off. She is gaining strength in her back and abs and has regained movement in two fingers and the thumb on each hand, as well as both arms and wrists, Michael Bushey, her father, said.
Bushey was admitted to the Kennedy Krieger Institute, a spinal cord rehabilitation center in Baltimore, Md., Jan. 2, where she expects to spend eight weeks, Michael said.
During Bushey’s healing, Devins said, he has been trying to place Bushey’s needs first. In October, the men’s track and field team, including Devins, organized a lift-a-thon to raise money for Bushey and her family to cover recovery expenses.
Senior Emily Moran, a good friend of Bushey’s, said Bushey’s absence leaves a noticeable gap on the college campus.
“When something happens to someone like that, it really hits home, and I think everyone misses her and realizes that she was such a huge asset to the Ithaca community,” she said. “There’s a big gap without her here.”
On the last day of classes in the fall semester, Bushey visited the college to map out her remaining course requirements and to meet with friends.
“When she came to visit the school just last month, she had that same smile and charm to her that she’s always had,” Laura Gladd, her sophomore-year roommate, said. “I know she’s being faced with a ton of difficulty right now, but she’s definitely being a fighter.”
Deborah Montgomery-Cove, professor of performance studies and Bushey’s voice instructor, said she advises students to “Sing for Michaela.”
If no paralysis exists and if she regains motor movement in her diaphragm and ribs, Bushey could return to singing, just like she used to for Brooktondale Baptist Choir. Montgomery-Cove said she hopes for the recovery of Bushey’s voice every day and longs to hear her sing again.
“She’s just so gifted,” she said. “Besides having all the ingredients to make a wonderful student and a successful musician, there’s just an amazing spirit there.”
Montgomery-Cove said she and Bushey have spoken about her future as a vocalist.
“I had some dreams in the middle of the night, and I would wake up … but she would be in front of me singing,” Montgomery-Cove said. “I think that I’m going to see that again. At some point in time, maybe she won’t be standing, but she will be able to use her voice again.”
To donate to the Michaela Rose Bushey Trust Fund, mail checks to P.O. Box 59, Au Sable Forks, N.Y. 12912.