The helmetless rider inadvertently struck a curb with her all-terrain vehicle and plunged over a six-foot drop-off, violently crash-landing on the ground below. The wreck left six-time Olympic gold medalist, Amy Van Dyken-Rouen, clinging to life. Airlifted to a nearby medical facility, she underwent a seven-hour operation during which doctors diligently labored to save her life. The accident very nearly severed her spinal cord, and it fractured vertebrae in her back, broken pieces of which came within millimeters of puncturing her aorta.
Though successful surgery spared Van Dyken-Rouen’s life, the traumatic injuries she suffered paralyzed her from the waist down. In a matter of minutes, the 41-year-old’s life had been revolutionized. The former world-class athlete, who at one time could outswim any woman on earth, would possibly never walk again.
As horrific as the physical pain of the ordeal must have been, one can scarcely comprehend the emotional anguish Van Dyken-Rouen must have experienced after regaining consciousness and learning what had transpired. One imagines a flood of questions coming to her mind. Why me? Why now? How will I go on?
Remarkably, Van Dyken-Rouen has refused to remain mired in grief or to indulge in self-pity. Rather, she’s pressing to make as much of a recovery, and to regain as much physical functioning, as is humanly possible. She’s also looking to establish a foundation—Amy’s Army—to aid those who have undergone similar accidents but do not have the family, community, or financial support from which she benefits.
When Van Dyken-Rouen talks about the accident, she’s amazingly hopeful and upbeat, even claiming that the incident has bettered her life in a number of ways. Listening to her speak, what stands out above all is her deep, authentic gratitude for the gift of life—a gift she certainly does not take for granted. “On June 6, at 7:30 p.m. my life changed forever. I am now a T-11/12 paraplegic, but I am blessed more than anyone in the world.”
The lesson Amy Van Dyken-Rouen delivers every day through the way she courageously approaches life is the power of gratitude to strengthen us through adversity.
Gratitude helps us find purpose in painful circumstances. Instead of regretting why something bad happened, a thankful attitude helps us find the good that can come about as a result.
“There’s a reason I got hurt,” Van Dyken-Rouen maintains. “Maybe the reason is to push a cure to the forefront because with all these smart, brilliant people (in research) there has to be a cure [for spinal injuries].”
Gratitude keeps us focused on the future rather than dwelling on the past. Thankfulness prevents us from looking back at what we have lost. Instead, it equips us to see the big picture and how we can move forward in light of it.
“It was supposed to happen,” Amy says of the accident. “[I have to] move on and think about the bigger picture, that I can help other people dealing with the same crap that don’t have the support I had.”
Gratitude enables us to grow through whatever we go through—no matter how awful the experience. Instead of lamenting how life will never be the same, thankfulness allows us to identify the ways tragedy can change us for the better.
“Before this accident, I had lost faith in humanity,” Van Dyken-Rouen confesses. “I watch enough reality TV to know there is a dark side of humanity out there. But at the same time, there’s such a great part of humanity. The things people have done who don’t know me, it blows you away. Before, I was a little cynical. Now I look for all the good.”
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When have you encountered misfortune or tragedy in life? What positive purpose can you discern in the experience? How did going through it strengthen you as a person?