When Molly Higley learned she’d suffered a severe spinal cord injury, resulting in paralysis from the waist down, her first question to doctors wasn’t, “Will I ever walk again?” It was, “Will I ever be able to have children?”
It was 2008, and Molly had stepped off a plane in Namibia, Africa, with her husband Kris. The couple shared a mutual love for travel and made it a priority to take a vacation each year around the time of their anniversary. That year, to celebrate their sixth anniversary, Molly and Kris planned a five-week tour of Africa as a sort of last hurrah before returning to their Long Beach home and trying to conceive.
But just two days into the trip, the Higleys’ dream vacation turned into a real-life nightmare. Molly and Kris boarded a six-seat Cessna 210 with plans to head to a safari camp. When the plane failed to gain altitude because of a reported engine failure, it hit a tree, clipped a power line and came crashing to the ground. Molly says the crash happened so quickly she hardly had time to think, let alone panic. “Fortunately and unfortunately, I remember pretty much everything,” she says. “The thought that was in my head was, ‘Is this really happening?’ I’m thankful it happened fast, because I never had time to think, ‘I’m going to die.’”
The minute the plane collided with the ground, Molly knew something was seriously wrong. She lost feeling from the waist down, a sensation she describes as having been “suddenly been sliced in half.” A former biology major, Molly instinctively knew that the signs indicated trauma to the spinal cord.
Molly was transported to South Africa, where she underwent surgery and spent 10 days in recovery. She found out she’d suffered an L1 burst fracture and spinal cord injury, leaving her paraplegic. Some feeling would return, but Molly would never regain full use of the lower half of her body. She says the week and a half spent in the South African hospital was trying, but it wasn’t until she returned home that she began to comprehend the gravity of what had happened and its permanent impact on her life.
Over the following months, as Molly engaged in intensive rehabilitation therapy, she says she hit a slump and depression set in. A self-described overachiever, Molly struggled to adjust to life with her body’s newly imposed limitations and went through a sort of identity crisis. “If I’m not a doer, then who am I?” she repeatedly asked herself. Molly was accustomed to an on-the-go lifestyle; she was an active volunteer and president of nearly every organization she touched. Before the accident, she had also excelled in a career as a commercial real-estate appraiser. Being bound to a wheelchair meant Molly had to rethink not just her hobbies but her entire life.
“I threw myself a pity party for a while,” she says. “I think I had a right to feel really blue about what happened. But at the end of the day, I had to decide that I wasn’t going to keep waiting for meaning to come from it. I needed to search that meaning out.”
Molly found the meaning she was looking for at her alma mater, the University of Southern California. Having reaped the benefits of therapy, she decided she wanted to help others with disabilities, so she enrolled in graduate school with the intention of becoming a licensed psychotherapist working with individuals, couples and families dealing with spinal cord injury. Not long after Molly started school, an unexpected but welcome surprise came when she found out she was pregnant. Molly says the next year was tough. With her injury, pregnancy is precarious; that uncertainty, coupled with the stress of taking graduate-level classes, frequently landed Molly in the counselor’s office in tears. But she persevered. Three years and two pregnancies later, Molly had a master’s degree and two children.
She counts finishing graduate school as one of her proudest accomplishments and looks forward to getting licensed so she can get to work helping others in a private practice. As a mom of two, Molly hasn’t been able to do this just yet. Last year, the family moved from California to Southlake in what Molly calls a “conscious decision to pursue a better quality of life.” They are settling into Texas living and, for the time being, Molly says she’s perfectly content being a stay-at-home mom to 3-year-old Brady and 10-month-old Lauren. She describes herself as a sort of “crunchy mom,” with a parenting philosophy that most closely resembles that of attachment parenting.
Parenting with an injury like Molly’s poses an unusual set of challenges, but she’s learned to cope and says that her wheelchair actually provides a certain level of freedom. The Higleys’ Southlake home is wheelchair-accessible, and Brady and Lauren are accustomed to zooming around the house atop their mom’s lap. There are a few things, however, that pain Molly to miss out on. She says her inability to push Brady on the swing and climb with him through jungle gyms is a sore spot. “It’s hard,” she says. “There are certain things – centered around my kids – that I can’t do, and that does bring sadness.” Molly asks for help in these situations. Learning to ask for help is just one of the many lessons she’s learned since the crash.
Molly says her disability also has forced her to be creative with finding ways to get things done. “People who are disabled – particularly with spinal cord injuries – are no different on the inside,” she says. The persistent need to be a “doer” never left Molly. She’s a Pinterest maven who loves to decorate and throw parties. She is confident that when her kids reach school age, she’ll be president of the PTA and probably even room mom. She also remains passionate about travel and would love to take her children to Africa someday. “I’m not afraid to go back,” she says.
“Fortunate” and “lucky” are words Molly uses frequently. She admits that given a choice, she’d never opt for the life-altering accident to have occurred, but she’s at a place where she can appreciate the good that has come of it. “I’ve learned to be OK with adversity,” she says. “I think that’s the key to finding happiness after a devastating event, to find meaning.”
Published September 2013