“You are paralyzed . . . We don’t know if you will walk again.”
I looked around the hospital room, confused, and blinked my eyes several times as I tried to grasp the words that were just told to me. I opened my mouth to respond, but couldn’t speak, as there were tubes in my mouth. I tried to move my hand to feel my mouth, but my arm wouldn’t move at all. I attempted to move my other hand, but it would move either. I, then, tried my left leg, my right leg, my toes, my fingers, and my neck. . . Nothing would move.
Overwhelmed with panic, fear, and confusion, I began sobbing mournfully. Within a minute, I had trouble breathing. A respiratory therapist rushed to my room to suction my trachea and adjust the ventilator. It was then that I realized how severe my injury was, that not only could I not move or feel my body; my injury was so severe that I could not even cry, for every time I did, phlegm would fill my airway and prevent me from breathing entirely. It was this day that I knew my life — my dreams and everything as I knew it — would never be the same.
I graduated from McKinney North High School in 2005 with honors and plans to pursue a degree in criminal justice. I didn’t know that only 16 days after graduation, I would be hit by an 18-wheeler in McKinney, Texas and flatlining on the pavement of Highway 5. I didn’t know that I would be spending the next 5 1/2 months in hospital after hospital, 4 flatlines and 10 surgeries later, still fighting for life. I didn’t know that in a single split second, my new normal would be that I was an 18-year-old who could no longer move her legs or hands.
My name is Tonya Winchester, and I am a victim and survivor of drunk driving. It was June 16, 2005 that I became paralyzed. Sixteen years later, not a day goes by that I don’t think about that night. Most days are actually amazing, despite my physical circumstances, as I have happily gained a new sense of identity, worth, and purpose.
I have definitely had my share of hardship and struggle along the way, though. I am very independent when in my chair, but I do need help to get in and out of bed and to shower. I have been blessed with wonderful care, but I have also unfortunately had my share of abuse and neglect from both caregivers and a past relationship. I have endured terrible things, some of which that I have never shared with anyone, just so that I could get into or out of bed or to simply shower. It is scary to see the parts of your ‘self’ that you become willing to compromise in order to have your basic needs met.
In a strange way, I am thankful for everything that I have experienced because I would not be the amazing woman that I am today had I not experienced every bit of it. I attended college and obtained my Bachelor of Social Work from the University of North Texas. I am also very active in my community and school district, and a speaker and activist for 10 organizations. I began speaking for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in 2009, and now proudly serve as the Collin County Victim Impact Panel (VIP) speaker as well as a speaker to the press, law enforcement, youth and schools, civic groups, and churches and an advocate at community fairs.
You may be wondering how my car crash exactly correlates with MADD. I shared that I am a victim and survivor of drunk driving. On the night that I became paralyzed, I was also drinking with three friends. It was my first time being drunk. I knew I was too intoxicated to drive so passed my keys to another friend who I knew ‘had more experience driving under the influence,’ or so my teenage brain reasoned. Minutes later, he missed the stop sign at the highway, and we were instantly hit at my front passenger side. When we were found, the driver of my car had fled the scene, and the three of us still in the vehicle were all unconscious.
What I believe is powerful about my story is also what is so great about all our stories. My story touches on many different aspects: the dangers of drinking and driving, the importance of responsibility, teenage rebellion, abuse and neglect from caregivers and intimate partners, disability, and the theme of tragedy to triumph. More than anything though, I share my story in hopes to encourage.
To all our law enforcement, thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I know the national climate has been thick this past year, in particular. I am sure many of you have felt tired, overwhelmed, sad, angry, hurt, not important, confused, and everything in between. Maybe you have seen some officers even quit or divorce or even had to experience one of your law-enforcement brothers and sisters pay the ultimate sacrifice in line of duty. With the workload being the other side of it, sometimes seeming so tedious and questionably worth it, especially to those of you with families . . . I want to tell each of you today that you are appreciated, loved, respected, and beyond valued. Please do not give up in this fight. In fact, may you feel even stronger and more empowered — empowered for justice for DWI crimes and victims and survivors of all crime to come. We need you. We appreciate you. And we love you!!!!!
Thank you again,
Video of my story: https://vimeopro.com/user1427064/tonyas-story