By Richard Skanse
“Do you want to see how fast I can go?”
It’s a week before Thanksgiving, and Savannah Welch is showing off her briskest, no-hands-needed strut down the middle of the parallel bars in the exam room of San Antonio’s Bulow Orthotic & Prosthetic Solutions. Her prosthetist, Kirk Simendinger, watches her with a smile, but only via a quick glance over his shoulder from across the room before turning his attention back to his laptop. He’s on hold with technical support, trying to troubleshoot a Bluetooth connection issue so he can make a few tuning adjustments to the resistance settings in her state-of-the-art microprocessor knee. Welch’s short little speed walk, about a half-dozen purposeful steps each way from left to right and back again, is just her way of passing the time.
“That’s about it,” she says with a laugh after the demo. I have no idea how “fast” a 99-pound woman swinging a 10-pound prosthetic right leg could reasonably be expected to hoof it, but at a guess I’d say she covered the distance in as good a time as I or anyone could have, hitch in her giddy-up and all.
“The danger is if I try to go too fast, I can lose it,” she explains, albeit noting that she’s only ever fallen hard once, just the other day. I ask if she’ll ever be able to run.
“I don’t know,” she admits, as though she hadn’t really considered it yet. “Will I be able to run, Kirk?”
The prosthetist, still engrossed in sorting out his connection issues, answers with matter-of-fact assurance, “Yeah, you’ll be able to run, someday.”
“How about riding a bike?” Welch asks a little off-handedly, playfully pushing her luck .
“Yeah, you can,” Simendinger says, this time stopping his work to turn and look at her. It’s a toss-up over who seems more surprised: Him at the question, or her when he asks back, “Have you tried yet? No? Why not?”
Welch wins, looking for all the world like a girl who’s just been told in the most casual way possible that she can fly. “Wha … how?”
“Just find a parking lot and practice,” Simendinger continues, matching his patient’s dropped jaw with a genuinely bemused smile. “Could you ride a bike before?”
* * *
For Welch, 33, “before” was both a long time and not very long ago: literally every day and moment of her eventful young life as an actress, singer, songwriter, and mother right up until 4:38 p.m. on Nov. 2, 2016 — the minute circumstance unceremoniously knocked her over the line and clear into “after.” A run of mundane errands on an otherwise uneventful but not unpleasant day positioned her in the wrong place at exactly the wrong time, directly in the path of an out-of-control SUV crashing through the parking lot of the Wimberley, Texas, Farmer’s Market. It was reportedly an accident of human error, with the driver apparently intending to back out of her parking spot and take a left turn out of the parking lot but inadvertently accelerating forward instead. She hit a van, with Welch caught in between the two vehicles before being dragged underneath the wheels of the woman’s truck. She was airlifted to Brackenridge Hospital in Austin, where her right leg had to be amputated above the knee.
But she lived. And was very aware, even before she knew she’d be losing her limb, how close things came to being unthinkably worse: both her father, singer-songwriter Kevin Welch, and her then-4-year-old son, Charlie, had been standing right beside her just prior to the chaos but thankfully wandered out of harm’s way a few moments before the accident. Both went unscathed.
Back in the “before” times, Savannah Welch had two healthy legs that she took for granted every day of her life. But from day one on the other side, here in the “after,” she’s counted herself as one of the luckiest people on earth. As she put it so memorably in her first social media post after the incident and amputation, “LEG, SHMEG.” It was a public expression of the sincere gratitude she felt not just for her own all-things-considered incredibly good fortune, but for the overwhelming outpouring of support and heartfelt well-wishes she’d received from so many both online and in-person at the hospital. A GoFundMe campaign, “Love for Savannah Welch,” launched six days after the accident, had already raised thousands to help her and her family with immediate and longterm expenses not covered by her medical insurance, and a handful of benefit shows in both Austin and her native Nashville would be staged before Christmas.
Since that Nov. 11 “Leg, shmeg,” post, Welch has shared a number of intimate moments from her recovery with friends and fans online, from the highly emotional posting about her trip home from the hospital just in time for Thanksgiving 2016 to the short Instagram clip documenting her very first baby steps — with parallel bar support still very much needed — wearing a very basic-looking prosthetic peg leg. There was also a video of her first time driving again (around an empty parking lot), singing along to Jo Dee Messina’s “Bye Bye” (“Got my left foot down on my accelerator …”), and it’s pretty much a given that when (not if) she takes up her prosthetist’s challenge to get back up on a bicycle again, she’ll be posting video of that, too. In addition to the online updates from her private life, she’s also had a handful of very public milestones — perhaps most notably her first time back onstage with the rest of the Trishas (Jamie Lin Wilson, Kelley Mickwee, and Liz Foster), singing “With a Little Help from My Friends” at the Austin Music Awards in March. (That was also the first night that she wore her fancy new prosthetic in public.) And though full-band Trishas appearances have been somewhat few and far between ever since they went on semi-permament hiatus a few years ago, their next performance looms right around the corner with a return trip in January to Steamboat Springs, Colorado for MusicFest, the annual Americana/Texas/Red Dirt music party in the Rockies where they played their very first show together back in 2009, as part of a tribute to Welch’s father.
This is not to say, however, that Welch has shared everything about her journey over the last 12 months — let alone that her life “after” has all been a can-do cakewalk. Beyond the still daily challenges of learning how to actively live, work, parent, and navigate busy airports and grocery stores on one good leg, there have been countless hours of wrangling with insurance companies and mountains of hospital bills to contend with. But through it all, her gratitude and determination to move ever forward and incrementally more assuredly — that little hitch in her get-along be damned — has remained remarkably undaunted.
Having had the pleasure of interviewing Savannah for LoneStarMusic twice before, first for a “Meet the Welches” cover story (along with her father Kevin and brother Dustin) in 2010 and again for our Trishas cover in 2012, I reached out to her a number of times over the last year to see if she’d be interested in talking at length about all of the above. When we were finally able to meet up in mid-November, the timing could not have felt more perfect — and not just because it happened to be 12 days after the one-year anniversary of the accident and eight before Thanksgiving. She invited me along for a drive to San Antonio for the aforementioned appointment with her prosthetist, picking me up in San Marcos on her way down from Austin. The hour-long trip each way, along with breaks during her three-hour appointment, allowed for ample time to talk about everything from her Star Flight ride to the hospital to her first post-accident acting audition (spoiler: she got the gig, and it’s a good one) to, most intriguingly, her January date for going back into the studio for the first time since the making of the Trishas’ 2012 album High, Wide and Handsome. This time around, though, she’ll be doing something she’s never done before — even, you know, before: Stepping out on her own determined to find, and hopefully share, the sound of Savannah solo.
* * *
What can you tell me about your appointment today? Are you being fitted for a new leg?
No. Today, my prosthetist is just going to take a mold of my residual leg so that he can make a new socket [to attach the prosthetic knee and leg to], because the socket that I have now is too big. They said that after about a year I would need a new mold made because the volume of the residual leg can really fluctuate in recovery and healing, depending on inflammation, the weather, your diet and all kinds of things. So after about a year is when that stabilizes. And the prosthetist I have now, who I love, was going to try to wait a few more months before making a new mold, but this socket I have now — which is actually the second one I’ve had already based on the first mold they made — is just no good anymore; it’s gotten to the point where I have to really layer stuff over my residual leg now just to keep this thing on. So, the main thing he’ll be doing today is casting a new mold of my leg to make a better socket … and if there’s time, I’m also hoping he can reprogram this knee. It’s called a ‘microprocessor knee,’ and he can log into it on his computer to adjust the resistance and stuff.
That sounds fancy. So it’s battery powered?
Yeah, which means I have to charge it every night — like I need one more charger to keep up with and plug in! But I have to or it doesn’t work, the knee won’t function the way it’s supposed to.
Has it ever died on you? I hope it holds a charge better than my phone.
That’s only happened one time, and of course I was in an airport. And you know how hard it can be to find an outlet in an airport when you really need one, like at the gate — and then how do I tell somebody who’s sitting there charging their phone, “My situation takes priority over yours, because I can’t walk if I can’t plug into this thing right now.” I just can’t do that. So I started hoofing it, and this knee starts buzzing and beeping at you — ‘grrr … rrr …beep-beep-beep!’ — it just beeps until it dies. I eventually found an outlet though, and just had to plug into a wall for a minute.
I feel funny asking this from your passenger seat while you’re barreling down the fast lane of I-35, but … what’s driving with that thing like? How long did it take before you felt ready to even try?
[Laughs] A little while. It took me until April I think before I decided to go to an empty parking lot and try driving with my left foot. A lot of people modify their car, like they’ll add a handbrake or make it so that the gas pedal is on the far left, but I decided to just learn it this way — which honestly is easier than I thought it was going to be, because it turns out it’s still intuitive. But the only thing about that is, I still don’t fully trust my left foot to be able to act fast, like if I needed to brake in a hurry, so I got this new car which has an automatic breaking system. So you’re safe! If there’s every a chance of a collision, the car will stop for me. That feature was really important to me, especially knowing that Charlie would be in the car with me a lot. And I also kind of realized that if the woman who hit me had had that in her car, this wouldn’t have happened. So just out of principal, I felt like I couldn’t justify getting back in a car knowing that I could potentially be putting somebody else in that same position when there’s so many new cars on the market now that have these automatic breaking systems and lane correction technology, that kind of thing. That was a real intentional buy.
Beyond having that assurance of those safety features, though — it must have felt pretty liberating just knowing you could drive again.
Oh, yeah. That was a motherfucker, not being able to drive myself or Charlie anywhere for however many months that was. I didn’t get this car until August, and the accident was last November. Well, actually I did have to drive myself a couple of times before in my old car — like either to or from Dallas to Austin before we moved back down here. I didn’t really have a choice. But it was fine. I mean, most of the time I was just talking my family off the ledge. You know, “I’m fine! I’ve got it!”
Have you found yourself having to do a lot in the past year? I know we’d all like to think we’d be a rock for a loved one who had to go through what you have, but it’s hard to really even comprehend.
Yeah. I mean, everybody’s been a rock in the way that they’re able to be. And I don’t know that I’ve been a rock for them, but maybe … let’s see, how do I say this? My role has been to reassure them more than anything else. I try to reassure them that I’m alright and adjusting, accepting a new reality, and that I can find humor and beauty in it. There have been some intensely internal lessons in it, that I can only rely on myself to overcome. Surrendering to the disability or fighting it is a choice. Finding ways to make it a positive is, too.
You’re an actor, though. Do you ever feel like you’re acting when you’re the one doing the reassuring? Is part of that you consciously putting on a brave face for everyone else?
I would say that the majority of the time, it is genuine. And the times when I’m not ok, maybe I just don’t include them in it. Do you know what I mean? There’s rarely been times when I’m truly faking it. Putting on a brave face, sure, but that’s because courage is only present when there’s fear, right? I just make a conscious effort to try only showing them the courage part. My confidence is shaky a lot. Unsure footing, literally and figuratively, (laughs) is a constant, so I don’t mean to come off like I have it all figured out. Maybe just not sharing with them the moments I struggle … because I don’t necessarily feel like I need to. I do seek support from where I need to, but … it’s really difficult for my dad, for example, to talk about the accident, because like you said, it’s hard to witness somebody that you love go through something tragic while you stand by feeling helpless. So, it feels selfish of me to lean on him. Same with my mom, who still gets very emotional. So if I reach out to either of them about times when this is so hard or challenging or confusing or frustrating or whatever, it’s going to affect them more than it might a more objective person who can still give me whatever support I might need at the time. That’s not to say that they’re incapable or if that’s where this’ll land forever, but I make an effort to be mindful of my weight distribution, so to speak. Ha. Another good pun! They’re fuckin’ endless, I tell ya.
So you’re saying it’s a balancing act.
Speaking of reassurances. I bet everyone reading this now who follows you on Facebook shared a collective sigh of relief — and probably a big smile — when they saw your first post-accident post opening with the words “LEG SHMEG.” It was a very heartfelt — and very you — way of letting everyone outside of your immediate circle of family and friends know that you really were going to be ok. But do you remember how long it took you to realize that yourself? As grateful as you were to be alive, and especially that both your son and father were alive, given how easily they could have been injured too had they not walked away from you right before the accident — in the immediate aftermath or at any time during that first week in the hospital, was there ever a point where you allowed yourself to think, when you were feeling at your absolute lowest, “I can’t do this, my life is over?” I mean, do you remember …
The lowest point? I would say the lowest point didn’t happen until I was in the physical therapy hospital a couple weeks later … and that was because of the pain. I had a nerve-block in while at Brackenridge, but once they took those suckers out the phantom pain came on like a wild fucking animal. And stayed on. Those were the “I can’t do this” moments. But I wrote “Leg Shmeg” on the first day I was at the physical therapy hospital because regardless of the pain … and to answer your first question, from the moment that I found out my leg was gone — and I truly cannot take credit for this because it didn’t feel like it came from me — I knew I would be ok. I had a visceral sense of faith that this happened for a reason, and trust that those reasons will be revealed to me for the rest of my days. Not only that, but it felt kind of familiar, like, “Right. Of course. I think I’ve done this before.”
That doesn’t sound like much of a pity party.
I want to be clear in saying that that’s a blessing that I know is unique due to my circumstances, and in no way do I expect anyone else to have the same experience or reaction to their strife and struggles. It’s ok to be pissed. It’s ok to feel sorrow and grief over any loss. Shit, we all know that it’s healthier to allow yourself to feel whatever is honest. But for me … I mean obviously, like you said, I felt so incredibly grateful and relieved that that was the extent of the devastation that happened, because as I’ve said so many times, it could have been so much worse. There were several close calls within those few minutes and the more that we’ve learned the details of the accident, talking to the witnesses that were there, etc, it was baffling that it wasn’t worse. So yeah, I came-to just elated, relieved, and so full of life and joy and gratitude. I mean I was finally, for what felt like the first time since I was a tiny child, just really, really stoked on life and being here for it. In being honest, I think for the majority of my adolescence and twenties, I was always trying to talk myself into being ok with life as I knew it. And I’ve gotten more transparent about that through all of this because I’ve noticed that it’s something that other people can relate to. There were many, many moments before all of this where I felt like I just did not want to be here. I would ask, “Why do I have to do this? I don’t want to be here anymore,” like I felt trapped. I like to think that I was able to identify the beauty in life, too, but I had been in and out of that “I could just go” sort of suicide ideology all through my twenties. That was no longer an option for me once I had Charlie, because after he was born I realized, you know, “I cant die now.” But even though I knew it was non-negotiable, those feelings were still there at times — and it wasn’t until right after the accident that I realized it’s not that “I have to be here.” It’s that “I get to be here.” Life is hard and imperfect and I’m usually chasing a finish line that’s ever moving, but I’m grateful to get the opportunity to do it — even if I’m flailing sometimes. So, with that being said, losing my leg was a small price to pay for such a profound shift in perspective.
And that was immediate?
Yeah. And very clear. I remember one of the first things I said to Jeff [Burns, her longtime domestic partner and Charlie’s father] when I came out of surgery was … I was intubated, so I couldn’t actually talk, but they gave me a board to write on, and I wrote, “I don’t want to die anymore.” I came to that realization when I was waiting for the EMS to show up, and when I was in the helicopter and really thought I may not make it.
Did you come pretty close to actually dying? Like from blood loss and trauma?
You know, I don’t know, because I haven’t been able to circle back and talk to those medics. I know that my main artery was severed and I remember a female paramedic telling me we didn’t have any minutes to spare. But there was a moment in the helicopter when … there were two medics on either side of me, and they had their headsets on because it was super loud. The door to the helicopter was wide open, or there wasn’t a door, and I kept looking out and it was just sky, and I was wondering how long it was going to take to get there. And I remember trying to say something to the medic who was on my left side, trying to tell him something — I have no idea what, but I remember him having to move his headset off and lean his head down close to me to hear it, and I don’t think he ever heard what I was saying. Somewhere in that time, what it felt like … and this is the only way I know how to explain it … it felt like I was sinking out of myself. Like, I was dropping out of myself, and it looked like the medics were getting further and further away from me, and there was this darkness closing in over me. Maybe that was a result of being medicated, or maybe that was just me passing out, I have no idea. But the conversation that I was internally having was, “This is it — I’m dying.” And I remember saying, “No! I am not done. This is not it. I’m not finished. I am not finished loving the people that I love.” And, I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but right at the last second, when there was a sliver of light left, I looked out the window and saw a brick building. I knew we’d made it to the hospital, and that I’d won.
This might sound almost petty in light of all of that, but do you remember much about the actual pain you must have been in at the time?
I remember pain when I was laying on the ground waiting for the EMS to get there. And I remember thinking there was no way I could survive that level of pain! But I don’t remember feeling anything when she hit me, or while I was auto-pinned or under the car at all. I was fully conscious, and I remember what it all looked and sounded like, but I don’t have any …
Do you have nightmares?
I don’t. I’ve had two flashbacks of it though that were only audio flashbacks. Nothing visual for some reason, and maybe that’s because I was so conscious and processing it in the moment; but the audio flashbacks were bizarre. I’ve never had that before in my life. I mean, I’ve had post-traumatic stress over other trauma in my life, but this was pretty wild. I was just brushing my damn teeth, and all of a sudden the sound of the accident was so loud and so clamoring and disorganized and … eruptive. She was crashing through tables and I was under the car … I can recall it all. It doesn’t get to me like it used to, but there were two times … I think the other time maybe I was driving, and I just heard it all again. It put me right back.
It’s been a year now, but is there still any pain in your residual leg? Is wearing the prosthetic uncomfortable?
My prosthetic socket is definitely uncomfortable. Hence the appointment today. But in regards to my leg leg, just pain from the scar tissue remains. I was told that sometimes scar tissue can heal around nerves, so there’s a couple of spots that still get me. With the prosthetic, the end of my leg doesn’t take any weight; all the pressure is higher up, kind of “all up in my world” (laughs). It’s the most sensitive part of your body, with a lot of nerve endings that are not supposed to take weight. And the pelvic bone can’t really take that kind of weight, either. So that’s been the main challenge and what’s the most uncomfortable. I am still feeling some phantom stuff, a constant static sensation, like when your leg’s super asleep, and then occasional nerve fireworks. It doesn’t happen too often, but every few days or so I’ll have a painful one in my phantom limb. I’ll have to reposition myself until it goes away.
I can’t remember who told me this at the time — maybe it was your brother — but is it true that you tried to refuse pain meds in the hospital?
Well … yeah, kinda. The narcotics. They eventually had me on Hydrocodone, Oxycontin, and just a plethora of other shit, mostly for nerve pain. And there was a lot of stuff that I was refusing in the hospital that was not as important. But for the first two days after the amputation, I did refuse the Oxycontin because I’ve been in recovery now for 10 years, and even though I never used narcotics before — that was never my party at all — I’m afraid of it. I’ve just seen too many people get totally turned around in it, and it’s so easy to get hooked on … I was just scared. So for the first two days I refused it, told them to find something else — and they were pretty up-front about everything else, telling me, “These are all the things that we’re administering and why.” But I kept refusing the Oxy until my dear friend, Jamie Wellwarth, visited me after I’d already been moved out of ICU and said, “Look, this is what that drug is for. You need to take it. And if you’re still taking it when you don’t need it, then we’ll talk.”
So did you?
Yeah. After that I was on Oxy and Hydrocodone and a handful of other stuff for months. I had one of those giant M-F boxes and we had a dry erase chart next to my bed at home to keep track. But I chose to kick the Oxy and the Hydrocodone early, like the second week of January. They told me, “You’ll be on this for six months to a year, for pain management,” and I was like, “Nope.” Because we came down to Wimberley for a couple of days in January, and I actually forgot my box of meds. So I went two days without it, and I was definitely dealing with more inflammation and nerve pain than I was used to — I think my dad had some Tramadol or something at his house that helped a little, just to get through that night. So then by the time we got back to Dallas, I had already missed six doses, and I thought, “Well, this is a little intense, but it’s bearable — and I’d rather deal with this a little while longer than have to be popping that stuff all the time.” And I didn’t feel really weird or anything, I’d only been taking it exactly as prescribed, so I was like, “I’m done.” But the next day I woke up and felt like I had the flu: I couldn’t move, full-body chills, stomach in knots, all of that. It wasn’t until day two of that that I was like, “Oh … I’m detoxing. That’s what’s happening.” I’m so glad that I didn’t realize that the first day, because I would have popped one in a second.
How long did the withdraw sympstoms last?
It was tricky. It was fucking with me a little. Because on day two, I was better, even though it was still bad. And the third day I started feeling a little normal, and then after that I had two more days of it being horrible again. So it was awful and then it would get better, and then when it was bad again. And I was like, “Fuck, I’m five days in, no way I’m ever going through this again.” But it was the most inconvenient time I could have chosen to do it. It happened to be Jeff’s birthday weekend, and it was also the only time it ever snowed in Dallas, so I had to get myself outside so Charlie could play in the snow. I remember peeling myself out of bed, getting my walker, going outside and just feeling so nauseous and achy, but trying to be joyful for him, like, “Yay, Charlie — snow!”
So you were taking the Oxy exactly as prescribed for just two or three months, and still had the withdraw symptoms?
Yeah. It’s a real problem. The doctors told me, “You can’t get off this stuff cold turkey, don’t even try.” I was on a light anti-depressant, too, because apparently there are studies that say an increase in serotonin helps phantom limb pain, and at the time when they were telling me all of my options, the phantom pain in the hospital was so severe I like, “Whatever. Anti-depressant? Sure. Gimme two.” And I got off of that cold turkey, too, like you’re not supposed to, and swung for about a week. Over South by Southwest, I think — another real convenient time! I should say, there’s good reason why they say, “Let us assist you in weaning off of these things.” But certain very sensible instructions seem to challenge the stubborn idiot in me, I guess.
You posted about the one-year anniversary of the accident last week. You and your family went back to the Farmer’s Market where it happened, right? What was that like for you?
Well, I actually didn’t go with them last week, because I was in Vancouver working on a TV show. But I have been back there, one time — that was the reason we came down to Wimberley in January, right after New Year’s. We went to the Farmer’s Market and took our attorney with us, so that he could make some sense of what happened and talk to some witnesses. It was incredibly cathartic: going back there, in a peaceful place in my heart about it, knowing I was ok and safe, and then getting to thank the people who were there, like the vendors — mainly Kathleen Mooney, who has EIEIO Farm out in Wimberley. She was the one who picked up Charlie and took him away from the accident right away, so she’s obviously a permanent treasure to our family. I also got to thank the farmer who sat next to me and held my hand and prayed with me until the EMS got there. You go through that with somebody, even if they’re a total stranger, and you really bond in a way.
But … the shitty thing about all that, though, was the fact that they still hadn’t closed off that parking lot to traffic. I say “they,” but I don’t mean the vendors, because lord knows they were just as terrified, just sitting ducks at that point. As far as I could gather, it was the lady who ran the shop [right by where the market is set up] who didn’t want to close off her parking lot in case it caused her to lose business. Sorry to publicly throw her under the bus, so to speak, but if you’re out there, lady, your negligence inadvertently threw me the fuck under a truck, so there … I feel a little justified in preaching that point. So we go back, two months later, and we’re standing there while big ol’ pick-up trucks come right through. I was holding onto Charlie, hobbling out of the way on crutches, just nervous as all hell, and I couldn’t fucking believe that they were still being that negligent. Still allowing people to drive where people are walking from booth to booth. The Farmer’s Market has since moved up the hill, finally. It’s still in the Community Center parking lot, still without much protection, but tucked away as much as possible. Anyway … go buy stuff from those vendors and give them hugs for me.
You’ve said before, after the accident, that you don’t blame the woman who hit you. But have you had a chance to talk to her?
I have not. That was not my choice, though. Our attorney recommended to us to not be in contact with her until the case was settled. Which just happened a few weeks ago, finally.
Can you talk about what the settlement was?
Sure. The settlement … well, leave it to me to be hit by a truck in the parking lot of a non-profit organization. [Laughs] Non-profits have policies that … I forget what it’s called right now, but essentially there are several caps on what their coverage is. If I had been hit in a Walmart parking lot, or any other business operation that wasn’t non-profit for that matter, then I probably would have been able to get at least two or three times what we ended up settling for. And the woman was an employee of the Wimberley Senior Citizens Activity Center, but she was leaving work, which was a key detail, because they were not liable for her as she was leaving the premises. So it was essentially just an auto accident on their premises.
So the settlement was just with her auto insurance company?
Well, no. It was mostly with the Wimberley Community Center’s policy holder. Her auto insurance and our under-insured coverage came into play, but I was one of three people with claims against her policy for that one accident, so there were caps there, too. The farmer I was paying for my green beans was hit, too. He was clipped and broke his leg in two places. Then the other farmer, who’s van I was pinned to, filed a claim because it was totaled. Poor guys. Anyway, I don’t actually remember offhand what the total of the settlement was, but I can tell you …
I’m guessing it doesn’t even come close to covering your medical expenses.
No. Not even … no. I mean our hospital bills, it’s laughable. To give you an idea, the Star Flight alone was like $17 grand. And that was after we negotiated them down quite a bit. Apparently, Star Flight gets to say that they’re out of network, which blew my mind, because it’s not like I can sit there and be like, “Hey, do you guys take my insurance? No? Ok, cool, I’ll grab the next one.” They kind of have you by the balls, so they get to say they’re out of network. Out of my pocket. And the actual hospital bills, from all the different departments — I will be paying hospital bills for the majority of my life. Which at this point, I’m like, “Cool, I’ll give them $10 a month forever, fine.” I figure they can’t really come after you if you’re paying them something. And I’m not willing to sacrifice our quality of life anymore than we already are.
What about your fancy new leg and microprocessor knee there? That had to cost a bit.
Oh yeah. I mean, this knee that I have, this is a loaner leg. Because we’re still working with my insurance provider to get them to approve me for a leg that is this high-functioning. They’ll approve anybody for just the most basic, like peg-leg style leg, but a leg like this …
I’m going to guess it would cost more than this Volvo.
Yeah. This knee alone is $80,000 — and you have to replace them every five to six years because they wear out. So of course no health insurance wants to approve you for that. That’s my understanding so far, anyway.
But you did at least have health insurance?
Yeah. Our whole family was on Jeff’s plan; we’re not married, but they honor me as a domestic partner. Here’s something that’s really corrupt, though. That settlement that we just got? It turns out that if you get a settlement from a third-party claim, the health insurance provider can put a lien against the settlement to be paid back every penny that they spent while I was in the hospital. I’m like, so why are we paying a premium? Isn’t that what that’s for? And it’s really stupid, because they wouldn’t have gotten any of that money back if there wasn’t a settlement, and there wouldn’t have even been a settlement if I hadn’t hired and paid for my own attorney. That’s the kind of stuff that … I could just get so eaten up by it, but there’s no way around it so I just decided not to let it effect how I was coping. Luckily, Jeff has been helpful in regards to all of that: just sorting the bills, stuff that’s gone to collections that shouldn’t have, yelling at the insurance people for me, etc. And our health insurance has changed three times now because of his employer.
As daunting as all of the bills and paper work must have been, at the same time there really was an overwhelming show of support for you and your family throughout both the Austin and Nashville Americana music communities. I remember there were at least a couple of different benefit shows, plus the “Love for Savannah Welch” GoFundMe campaign. Did HAAM (the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians) get involved, too?
HAAM offered to, and they were incredibly supportive in just reminding us that they were there. But because we did have health insurance and all that incredible support from that GoFundMe campaign, it was important to me that I didn’t use resources unless we really needed them. And we’re still sort of in that phase of trying to sort out what we need help with. Things like, what’s our out-of-pocket going to be once I am approved for a non-loaner leg? Some of that we’re still waiting to find out. But I’ve still been able to use some of the GoFundMe money for other things that insurance isn’t covering, like therapy and chiropractic care.
Who started the GoFundMe? And do you remember off-hand how much it ended up raising?
Well my brother was really the driving force behind that. My family all discussed it and decided to do that together, and then they had Jenni Finlay help — she was the one who put it together and managed it. And I would have to look it up, but I think it’s raised something like … $105,000, I think? Which was just beyond … I mean, when it started we thought maybe if everybody chipped in a few bucks, it would maybe cover somebody’s plane ticket. [Laughs] We had no idea. I still get really emotional about that. In fact if I’m traumatized by anything, it’s from the droves of love and support that my family received. Truly.
Let’s talk about that “Stand with Savannah” benefit show that was held in Nashville [at Skyville Live Studio on Dec. 13, 2016]. Was that the first time that you sang again onstage after the accident?
I’m trying to remember. Because we also did a show at the Continental Club, and in November Toddy [Austin photographer and longtime friend Todd V. Wolfson] put together something he called the Eye Love Savannah Jam at Monkey Nest Coffee, and I think that was actually my first time. I didn’t really “perform,” really, but I got up and sang with other people.
The benefit in Nashville was mainly billed as “the return of the Dead Reckoners,” your dad’s old band. But Emmylou Harris ended up being there, too, right?
She was. That whole night was so emotionally loaded, just the way it seemed to really bring things full circle, with so many people that I’ve known my whole life who have been family to us, our whole community there in Nashville. And getting an opportunity to sing “Too Old to Die Young” with my dad there, after he and I had been through all of this … it was really beautiful. And even putting all of that aside, it was just a really great show! The band was rockin’, Emmylou was a dream, and so were Cary Ann Hearst from Shovels and Rope and Joy Williams from the Civil Wars … it was a massive group hug. And a great party.
Just because you grew up around a lot of great songwriters and artists, you’re not immune to those moments, are you? Like the “holy crap” factor of Emmylou Harris playing a benefit for you is not lost on you just because she’s a family friend.
No! It’s not lost on me at all. And there was no reason for her to feel any kind of obligation to do that; she just did, and she volunteered all that time. It was unexpected and surprising and so, so gracious. She got there early, too, and hung out all day with us, rehearsing, we had dinner … But I mean, she’s still Emmylou! At one point I walked by her dressing room, and she had makeup and hair stuff covering the entire counter. And I was like, “Damn … now that’s how you do it.” I think I had some shitty little makeup bag that was falling apart, and I couldn’t find anything, but Emmylou, she knows how it’s done. [Laughs]
I know we’ve already talked a lot about the accident, and I want to move on from that and talk more about what you’ve got going on right now, but if we can go back to your time in the hospital for a minute, one important part of the picture we haven’t really touched on yet is your son Charlie. How old is he now?
He’s 5 and a half now, but was still 4 when it happened.
How long did it take him to get used to your new leg?
Like, zero. [Laughs]
What’s wild is, a few days before the accident happened, it was Halloween time, so I had taken him to a pumpkin patch place, and we were in line for a hayride. The woman behind us had a prosthetic leg. Charlie kept looking at it, and whispered to me, “Mom, she has a robot leg!” I was like, “It’s pretty cool, huh?” And he goes, “Yeah!” And she noticed him and went, “Are you looking at my leg? Do you want to touch it?” And she told him all about it — how she’d lost her leg in a motorcycle accident, showed us how her prosthetic worked, was really open about it. And he was like, “Awesome!” And again, this was less that one week before.
So, in the hospital, I think it was day three — he had not been in to see me yet, because I had been in ICU and still looked pretty banged up, all hooked up and kind of scary looking, and we didn’t want to bring him in until I was moved to a regular room and could be a little more “mommy looking” for him. Everybody was still really nervous about how it was going to go, him seeing me without my leg for the first time, but they wanted me to be the one to tell him. So we called him to say goodnight the night before, and he goes, “Mom, they told me that your leg broke in lots of pieces.” There was something about the way he said it that made me realize that, in his context, it would be like a toy that would break. And so I went, “It did. It broke in so many pieces that they couldn’t put it back together. They couldn’t fix it. So they just had to throw it away.” And he was like, “WHAT?” And I was like, “I know. They took it. But do you know what that means?” He goes, “What?” I said, “That means I get to get a robot leg like that lady.” And he was like, “WHAT? AWESOME!’ [Laughs] He was just immediately like, stoked.
So you definitely did not need to sell Charlie on the robot leg.
God no. He was like, “I cannot believe this! Awesome!” So that next day, he was a little nervous when he saw me, because I still had all these stitches and the IVs … so he couldn’t really get cozy next to me yet. But he still adjusted I think faster than anybody, faster than any of us. In the physical therapy hospital, he’d come in and I’d throw a ball back and forth with him for balance practice, and lean down with him, play with him, and he’d come over and kiss my “hurt leg” for good luck. He didn’t skip a beat.
I’m sure there have been times … I mean, I was mostly worried about how this would affect him. The only time I cried sad-tears in the hospital was when I asked the doc if I’d still be able to take Charlie swimming in the ocean. I dream about teaching him to ski, running through the woods with him, all that. I still want him to get to be a kid, not feel like he has to care for me, or that he has to do more for himself because of this. But I think he does feel that sometimes, where maybe I’ll ask him to pick something up for me, and he’ll be like, “Ugh. Can’t you just get it?” [Laughs] Or I’m like, “Charlie can you bring my walker back over here?” And he’s like, “I was playing with it.” I can’t carry him or get to him in a hurry. So there are moments like that where it’s frustrating for him, I know. But I also see all this compassion that’s woken up in him, and he’s helpful in ways I’ve noticed without anyone asking him. Like opening the door for other people, always checking on people when they fall, offering to hold my hand or help me try stuff on in a dressing room. [Laughs]
I’m an attraction with kids now, too. At the playground at Charlie’s school, I’m just trying to drop him off, and I’m sure the teachers get annoyed because the kids will swarm around me. And Charlie’s very matter of fact. He’s like, “My mom got hit by a truck, but I didn’t. I wode in a powice car while she was in a helicopter and they took her away cuz her weg broke so much …” There’s no heavy about him, he’s just really matter of fact. Just recently, we were in the airport and Charlie was pushing me in the wheelchair. This guy came up and said, “What happened to you, kid?” Charlie looked up because he heard “kid” and goes, “She got auto-pinned and wunned over by a truck.” And just went on and on. I was like, “Yup.” I don’t think I said one word until, “Have a good flight.”
That’s great … and handy. So, to bring things up to the present, tell me about this TV show you just filmed — the one that made you miss being with Charlie and the rest of your family the other week on the anniversary of the accident.
Yea, it’s called SIX. It’s a drama on the History Channel about the Navy SEAL Team Six — the guys who went in and got Bin Laden. It’s loosely based on their real missions, but obviously written for TV. The first season got great reviews, and they’re shooting their second season now. That’s what I’ll be in. I play the role of an ex-Marine named Dawn who lost her leg in an IED explosion. One of the main characters, a SEAL, gets injured and then meets her in the physical therapy hospital. It ends up being a pretty pivotal turning point for his character.
When did you get the part, or first find out about it?
In September. My agent called me and she was like, “Ok honey, I’ve got an audition for you, and you’ve got a leg up on the competition on this one!” [Laughs] I was like, “Ah shit, an actual amputee role?!” In the hospital, I remember I had a conversation with her a couple of days in, and she asked me, “Is this [acting] something that you’d still like to pursue?” And I was like, “I don’t know how to not want to do that. That part wasn’t cut off of me.” It wasn’t like, “Oh, I lost my leg, so I don’t want to act or play music anymore, or I don’t want to eat tacos anymore.” Or anything else that you feel passionate about or like to do, that feeds you. I don’t know how to just cut that off.
So I said to her, “Of course I want to keep acting. I just don’t know what that role would look like; it would take a unique director to take that on.” And she asked a question which, I can’t fault her for this at all, she just didn’t know how to ask it: “Would you want to try to hide it? Or not?” I was like, “Well, first of all, I can’t hide it …” I mean, you’ve seen the way I walk. And she said, “Well, do you want me to just send you into auditions, just like I would otherwise?” And I said, “Yes, but I want to make sure that they know about it before I walk into the room. I just don’t want to put them in that position, and I don’t want to have to field that while I’m trying to be in character. As long as they know, and they’re cool with me auditioning anyway, then I’m down.”
So along comes this role where you happen to be just what they were looking for.
It was the first audition that I’d had since the accident, and she goes, “You have a leg up! But … I need you to be off-book, find somebody to put you on tape and get me the tape by 10 am tomorrow.” This was like, 6 p.m., I was staring at a pile of dishes and a sleepy kid and I was like, “Yea, that’s impossible.” Jeff was out of town and I was on my own with Charlie. She sent me a list of people in town that could put me on tape, and …
To be clear, because I don’t really know a lot about that world — by finding someone to “put you on tape,” I assume a friend with an iPhone wouldn’t cut it.
No. You have to have lighting, all that. That’s the shitty thing about having to put all your auditions on tape: you have to pay someone just to audition. But some of them will coach you a bit, read the other dialogue off-camera for you, they know how to condense it to whatever file is needed, all that stuff. Anyway, my agent sent me this list of people that tape in town, I recognized most of them, but at the bottom was this girl’s name, Elizabeth Trieu, and next to it it said, “Coaching, taping, and good vibes.” I was like, I need that — I need good vibes. I called her and she said, “Yeah, I’m available tomorrow morning, no problem.” So I stayed up all night trying to memorize lines, overslept, got Charlie to school in the morning in a frenzy, then hightailed it to meet her. At this point, I’d already convinced myself that I had no shot. It had been over a year since I’d done any acting. The morning had been a mess, and I felt really alone and defeated in the pursuit. But the minute I got on the phone with Elizabeth and she said, “While you’re in traffic, let’s just start running lines …” Her coaching breathed some hope into me. I think we got the tape turned in maybe an hour late. They put me on hold for the role the next day … I think they had two other girls on hold, too: one was another amputee, and one they were just going to CGI.
Man … as happy as you must have been to get the part, your heart had to have gone out to the other amputee. Because you know her agent told her the exact same thing yours told you — “You’ve got a leg up on this one, kid!” And then she didn’t get the role. She must have been like, “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
Totally! Somebody made a joke to me like, “Ah, she was probably just a below-the-knee.” And I was like, “Ouch — this is rough for all of us.” I thought, “Man, I thought I was typecast before …!”
What were you typecast as before?
[Laughs] Oh, before, I was always like “the interesting other choice girl.” Or like …
Never “the one.”
No. I was definitely not like, “Booby blonde No. 2.” I was the “dark one.” Or the one who was sexually molested, or an addict. That was me.
I found your acting reel online last night, and one of those addict roles was prominently featured. I think it was from The Sinner.
Yeah. And since then I’ve done a couple of other addict roles. But I don’t know … I played a pretty normal college girl in Boyhood!
Yeah, that’s not in the reel I saw. You need to update it! But back to Six — you filmed your part up in Canada?
Yeah, they’re shooting Season 2 in Vancouver. So I went up there twice. The first time for about 10 days, and then they called me back again for just a one-day shoot, which happened to be on the anniversary of the accident. The season doesn’t air until March, though, so I can’t say too much about it.
You said your character is an ex-Marine, though, which immediately made me think of the Solider Songs and Voices program that your brother Dustin is very involved in — teaching vets how to express themselves through songwriting. Have you participated in any of the groups he leads every week at Cheatham Street Warehouse?
No, I haven’t, but I would love to. In fact they just did a retreat, and I really wanted to get down there to be a part of it, but Jeff was traveling that week and I couldn’t really peel away. It’s something I really want to get involved in, though, to see if there’s anything I can do to be of service, because it’s such a killer program. And a lot of those vets who are amputees have reached out to me, through Dustin; they sent cards after the accident, just really thoughtful. So I’d love to show up for them anyway I can.
So we won’t see you in Six until next spring. Weren’t you also in a movie called The Transcendents (by writer/director Derek Ahonen) that was shot in Austin last year? What’s the status of that? Kathy Valentine of the Go-Go’s and BlueBonnets is in it too, right?
Yeah. We shot that in the Spring of 2016. We did most of it down here, and some of it in Boerne and Bastrop. Shot entirely on film, the DP is really talented and Derek is a visionary, so the thing is really beautiful. I played a musician/addict. Go figure. [Laughs] As for when it’ll come out, though … like with a lot of indie films, you just don’t know; they enter them in festivals and it’s a waiting game. But they were talking about doing a cast and crew screening down here next month, so it’s definitely done. I think it was finished in post a couple of months ago, so now they’re just shopping it around.
Let’s shift creative gears and talk about music. I know the Trishas still assemble for a few shows a year, or maybe every couple of years — like y’all are playing MusicFest in in January. But it seems like it’s been a long while, even before the accident, since that was the main thing on your plate, the way it was back from 2009 to I guess 2013 or so. After the group sort of went on hiatus when everyone moved to different cities, did you feel like you were pretty much done with that chapter? Or did you feel like singing and songwriting would always be part of your life in some measure? Put another way: Have you done any songwriting at all since then?
I’ll always keep a door open to it. But it’s taken a back seat because of lack of time. Being honest, that’s been in large part due to motherhood without much support. Showing up to perform with a kid in-tow is one thing. Woodshedding with him banging on the piano next to me is another. Due to circumstances, it’s been a real challenge to figure out how to carve out any stretch of time for myself; getting to sit down when I feel inspired … there’s none of that. I swear I’m not trying to have a pity party about it or make excuses, I’m just admitting that I haven’t figured out how to juggle it yet. Or every time I do, we move. [Laughs]
Yeah, I was going to ask about that. I know you were in Dallas for a while, but weren’t you living down here last year at the time of the accident?
Yeah. From New Years Day of 2016 until the accident, Charlie and I lived in Wimberley at my dad’s. We’d been in Dallas since 2011 before that, but turns out, that experience was mostly a soul-sucker … so we fled. There’s more to say about that, but we’d need another day … and that’s probably for a different publication. [Laughs] It wasn’t until I got out of the hospital over the holidays last year that we moved back to Dallas. Then we all moved to Austin a few months ago.
Do you miss it? Songwriting, I mean.
Yeah. I do. And actually, I just recently started playing more, since we moved back to Austin. I like to sit and write at the piano. So I’ve gotten some bits and pieces. I haven’t finished a song in a long time, though.
When the Trishas do get back together for a show nowadays, do you get nervous? Or are you able to just jump right back into that role, like you never stopped? And especially since the accident, the times you’ve been back onstage, does it seem like a bigger deal to you now than it might have in the past?
Yeah. It feels much more significant. That was something else … I feel like for awhile I was always like, “Ugh, do I even want to do this? Do I still like it?” I struggled with that. There were a lot of reasons I loved it, and reasons I hated it, and show to show it would be different. But I’m just now … just getting to come full circle back to Steamboat in January, where we started, and be up there with so many of the people that were such a great support to me and my family through this … that particular music scene feels very familial, now more than ever. And yeah, it sounds cliche, but it’s an understatement to say that I’m grateful to have the opportunity.
It’s that realization again that you don’t have to do it — you get to.
After the Trishas stopped being everyone’s main gig, Kelley Mickwee and Jamie Lin Wilson both really committed to solo careers. Have you ever felt that bug?
My whole damn life. But, as you know, it was complex. And now … I actually have some studio time at Arlyn booked in January to do that. And I haven’t really told anybody yet, other than Lisa Fletcher at the studio and my dear friend Sarah Trapp, who manages Dan Dyer and helps various artists. Anyway, I think it was the first time when I was in Vancouver shooting the TV show, Sarah texted me while she and Dan were at Arlyn, recording. And she was like, “Hey look, I’m talking to Lisa, and we think you need to get in here to record some solo stuff.” I’ve got a stack of songs…most of them are pretty old, but they’re songs that I’ve either co-written with other people who ended up cutting them for their own records, or songs of mine that were in the running for the Trishas but didn’t make it, ones that we play live but never recorded. So I don’t have a ton of new material, but I do have stuff like that and it’s just a matter of deciding, are any of these still relevant, do any of them go together? I would love to record, though. Just to explore, you know, what is my sound? What does that sound like, outside of the Trishas or singing with my dad and Dust…? That’s a real question I have. So when Sarah called me she was like, “Alright, Lisa wants you in here in January and I’m booking it, so get your ass in gear!” Which is what I really need — a deadline and people counting on me to show up, because otherwise I’d probably just keep circling around it.
So between heading back to MusicFest with the Trishas and then coming home and straight into the studio, your January is looking pretty loaded. Any idea yet what you might want to do after that?
Well, last year, just before the accident, I got the opportunity to direct a Band of Heathens music video, for “Deep Is Love.” At first they reached out to me to help them find someone to direct it, but eventually they were like, “Why don’t you just do it?” And I told them, “As long as you know that I don’t know what I’m doing, then I’m way down.” And it turned out that I knew more than I thought I did; it was still a total experiment, and I was mostly just helping them execute an existing vision and concept they already had, but from that experience, I found out that I loved directing. I mean, I hated thinking about the cliche of the actor that wants to direct now, but I was hooked. So after that I was like, “Ok, what do I want to do with this?” Well, my dad has a series of short stories he’s written that are really beautiful, and for a while now he’s talked about publishing a collection of them or whatever. I went to him and said, “How would you feel about me taking some of your short stories and adapting them into screenplays to make shorts out of them?” He was like, “I love it, let’s do it.” And so kind of slowly along the way I’ve put together a crew, and I’d really like to get started on that next year.
What’s on your plate the rest of this year, heading into the holidays? You told me the other day you’re headed to Nashville tomorrow for three weeks. Is that for work or family?
Both! My sister Ada is having a baby — she’s due the week after Thanksgiving — and she asked me to be her birth doula. Do you know what that is?
Is that like, the catcher?
[Laughs] Well, no … that’s not in our job description, although I’ve done it. A doula is somebody who provides emotional and physical support to the mama in labor, and to her partner as well. When Charlie was 2 I became certified as a birth doula. I was Jamie Lin’s doula when she had her third baby, Thomas Roy. She had him at home, a planned home birth. And because she and her husband, Roy, kind of live out in the sticks, Charlie and I moved in with them about 10 days before her due date. That turned out to be a good thing because Jamie Lin had an incredibly efficient labor — about an hour and 20 minutes, start to finish. The midwife didn’t quite make it in time, Roy was running around the room in a union suit grabbing supplies … so, yea, I got to catch that sweet boy. First thing he laid eyes on in this world was my mug, poor thing! The second birth I attended was (friend and fellow singer-songwriter) Suzanna Choffel’s, who had a marathon 32-hour labor. Third was a girl who was referred to me through another doula, and now Ada will be my fourth — and my first one since the accident. The thing about being a birth doula is, it can be a really physical job, so I’ve felt the potential loss of that calling. For now, anyway. But getting to support my little sister is a really perfect opportunity to see what I’m capable of … and what I’m not.
Did you ever see yourself doing this — doula-ing — as a regular gig? Like a paying job?
I didn’t start a business or website or anything, it’s just been word of mouth. I don’t have a lot of time to do it a lot, because you’re basically on call for four weeks, before and after the due. So two or three a year is enough for me. It is a “gig” though. Jamie Lin paid me with … Well, Roy made me a killer cutting board out of a piece of mesquite, and Jamie sent me home with a couple of kombucha scobies. So yeah … it pays. [Laughs]
Your Facebook profile says that you’re an accredited Attached at the Heart Parent Educator. Is that part of the doula thing?
No, that’s different. I went through training to be certified as a parent educator, through a program called Attached at the Heart. It’s founded on the eight principles of Attachment Parenting. So that’s something else I’ve thought about: if I can’t support women in labor, what are some other ways that I can support families and this next generation that doesn’t require such an able body?
What woke that up in you? Was it all from having Charlie?
It’s something that I’ve always been … I remember the Trishas giving me shit one time, even before I was pregnant with Charlie, because I was listening to parenting podcasts. [Laughs] So it’s something I’ve always been passionate about it. Barbara Nicholson, who’s [songwriter] Gary Nicholson’s wife, is one of the founders of Attachment Parenting International, and I grew up with her four boys — she was one of the other really loving mamas around me, so having she and Gary, along with my parents, as models, receiving the responsiveness and respect that API is founded on … I think the passion was already ingrained in me. But the desire to support others is definitely from my own experience of becoming a mother.
Well it sounds like your sister has a great coach on her team. So you’ll be spending Thanksgiving with her and your mom there in Nashville?
Yeah, and Dustin’s heading out there, too, and then my dad will be getting there the first week of December. Lots to feel thankful for this year.
I would have thought last year’s would be hard to beat. Didn’t you get home from the hospital just a couple of days before?
I did, yeah. We hosted Thanksgiving in Wimberley. This goes back to needing another day, but in short … the accident seemed to serve as a needed reunion between Jeff’s family and I. So that Thanksgiving was the first time Charlie and I got to share what had been our life and sanctuary for those previous 10 months with them. Felt poignant in many ways.
When you look back over the past year … beyond just all of the things that you’re thankful for, what do you think has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned about yourself through all of this? Or maybe put a different way, is there anything in particular that you’d like for other people to really takeaway from your journey after hearing your story?
Oh goodness. I don’t know. One thing, and it’s something that I’ve struggled to put words to, because sometimes I accidentally sugarcoat this whole thing, and the truth is … not that it’s been a breeze, at all — but the positive that it’s brought has outweighed the shit show by far. In some sneaky ways, even, and it requires me to pay attention and really look for the blessings, rather than cruising along waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak. Ha.
What do you mean by “sneaky ways”?
It’s almost like, you know how they talk about the pendulum that has to swing in life, the extremes that you have to go through before you land somewhere in the middle? It feels similar to that, in that some of the more humiliating or humbling moments have the most beauty to them, also. Which is usually unexpected. And I know a lot of that beauty comes from perspective and being open to looking for it, but…
Well, here’s a good example of what I’m talking about — the kind of thing that now happens to me all the time. This happened a couple of weeks ago when I was flying to Vancouver for the second time to shoot the TV show, on the day before the anniversary of the accident. So usually at the airport, I go ahead and line up wheelchair assistance, because even though I’m able to walk, I only have so many steps in me per day before it gets too painful — plus, I’m just a lot slower than I wish I was. So, I make it to D/FW for my connection, and if it’s on your ticket that you need wheelchair assistance, then typically it’s waiting for you when you get off your plane, to go meet your next leg. But I got off the plane that time to make my connection, and there was no wheelchair. The flight attendant called and found out it would take awhile, so I was like, “It’s cool, I’ll walk it.”
So, up the terminal I go, trying to hug the walls so people can blow past me. I get to the screen to find out where my gate is and while I’m standing there, this airport employee pulls up in one of those little carts … not like the golf carts that you see wheeling people around airports, but smaller, with two rows of red handicap chairs set back to back. And she kind of wheels up and lets this other woman off. I hobble over and said, “Are you able to give me a ride to C-13?” She looked at me with attitude coming out of her ears and said, “You cannot walk?” I said, “I can walk, sort of, but I’m just wondering if you could give me a ride instead.” With a mocking smile, she goes, “It is too far for you?” I said, “Well it is, a little bit. Are you busy? I could probably make it, but if you’re available …” And she kind of cut me off and … looking at me like, “You’re serious?”
And I mean, I couldn’t tell … I thought that she noticed my leg, but I was still just trying to answer her honestly and, like, not “use the disability card.” But she kept challenging me and people around us started watching. I wasn’t getting upset or defensive, and kept telling myself, “Don’t be reactive, just answer her questions …” But it started feeling weird, like I’d made a mistake. She kind of laughed at me at one point. I finally managed to say, “It’s a little bit far, and I don’t have very much time, I’m slow because I’m still learning on this prosthetic …”
Could she actually not see it before that? What were you wearing?
I guess she hadn’t noticed it! I think I was wearing a jumper that had wide legs or something. But I would have thought it was still obvious, because I’d been shifting my weight, trying to take my backpack off, and … you’ve seen me, it’s pretty obvious. Anyway, it was clear she hadn’t, but once she did she goes, “Oh!” And got really embarrassed, where she couldn’t even look at me. She kept saying “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know … I just thought that you were being young and lazy …” I was like, “It’s ok, I was trying to tell you. I thought you saw …” People were still standing around watching, and after I climbed onto her little cart she started to cry. Then I started to cry because she felt so bad. So we’re sitting there both crying, and she’s trying to get the cart moving while wiping away her tears, and we start buzzing through the crowd pretty slowly, trying to not cry the whole way. We got to my gate, and she goes, “I’m so sorry, Miss …” And I just gave her a hug and said, “It’s ok … you didn’t know.” I said thank you, then she said thank you. Then boom, pre-boarding started.
So, you get to have these very awkward but also very intimate moments with total strangers really quickly. People that you’re having to rely on for help. And you’re also seeing how this disability affects them. Some people have a hard time watching me struggle, it makes them uncomfortable so they try not to look, and others will just walk up to me and strike up a conversation with me where they wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s just really interesting; I feel like I’ve been put on this other level of connecting with people, where I no longer get to just connect with people on a surface level as much, if that makes any sense. I mean I knew that woman at the airport for a total of like 10 minutes, and in that short span of time we were crying together and hugging. I’ve definitely been entered into a social experiment — involuntarily. But I’m down with it.
I’m just really impressed at how you were able to keep your cool when that woman started hitting you with attitude. Do you think you’ve become a lot more adept at how you handle those awkwardly intimate moments? Or just the awkward moments, period?
Well yeah … Initially, I made a bit more of a scene, before my prosthetic…just being on crutches with one leg … you don’t see that everyday. So I think maybe I was a little more self conscious about it. And by that I mean, I don’t want to say I was self conscious about my body, but I got uncomfortable when other people got uncomfortable. But now I’m kind of settling into it and probably taking more of a scientific, sociological … anthropological point of view. I think my experience comes down to my level of acceptance, and that includes acceptance of the other person or people that are reacting to it. Some people get nervous, like they don’t know if they’re supposed to mention it or acknowledge it, or maybe it’s upsetting for them for whatever reason, and so I’ve gotten to where sometimes I can make a joke and it breaks the ice. So I find myself sometimes having to manage their reaction a bit. But I ultimately have to come back to focusing on, you know, “This is not my whole identity: I can identify with it, and accept it as part of me, gratefully, but demonstrate for others that it’s even possible for it to be an after-thought at times.”
Anyway, I guess my point is … I don’t mean to hide the struggle and come across like, “This ain’t no thing!” Or just act like my reaction to all of this has been all profound or something. There are daily challenges, whether they’re encounters like that one in the airport, or just having to relearn how much shit I can put on my plate in a day — learning the hard way that I can’t just whip through a grocery store as quick as I think I can. So I don’t mean to paint a false picture of what all of this has been like. But the main takeaway for me through all of this, apart from just feeling incredibly lucky to have had the support system of my family and friends, has been a perspective shift. Because crisis, struggle, and strife are always going to be a part of life, but it’s a matter of our perspective that can change our experience in it. What’s that Buddhist saying…? It’s not what happens, but your relationship to what happens that effects you…? Something like that. Apparently I needed a pretty major smack down to get that.
Looking ahead to this time next year, what would you have liked to have accomplished by then? Any idea?
Hmmm. Well, for my personal goals, I would love to ride a horse, get in the ocean, and figure out a way to maybe ride a bike again. But the more important stuff … I think that I would love to find a way to give some support to other people, other amputees in similar situations. I don’t even know what that would look like, but finding a way to give back in service somehow. This is maybe a pipe dream, but I’d love to get certified to teach yoga to little kid amputees, or at least make classes available for them. Not just for balance and strength building, but also for their confidence; for them to get to do something that they can accomplish, and do it together, and it can look however it needs to for them, whether they’re missing an arm or a leg or both legs or whatever. And where they can have fun, too, and get to be creative. It’s just an idea I’ve had. Because kids are so naturally little yogis anyway … and I know how much it’s helped me.
I assume you don’t wear the prosthetic when you do yoga, do you?
No. It’s too limiting … I can’t really sit on the floor with it. And it’s really heavy, too. So I just do the same poses twice on the same side, and kind of modify whatever I can as needed. I went to Bikram with Kelley Mickwee the other day, and we cracked up in the middle of class because we were doing the tree pose, which is standing on one leg. There were people kind of losing their balance, hands falling out of prayer position, and … I really didn’t mean to, but I guess I kind of yawned. And Kelley looked over at me and just goes, “fuck you.”
[Laughs] Totally unintentional! But so perfect. I couldn’t miss the chance to make a show of it!