In the aftermath of a horrific car accident in 2008, Jennifer Darmon looked down and saw a woman paralyzed from the waist down, confined to a wheelchair.
But when her boyfriend, Mike Belawetz, proposed in 2010, she was able to see a much different vision. It was the kind most women picture for their wedding day: a sea of beaming faces, a walk down the aisle, and a first dance with her new husband. In her mind, rolling down the aisle in a wheelchair was not an option.
And on April 16, after years of grueling physical therapy, the 28-year-old made that dream a reality: With the assistance of titanium leg braces that lock below her knee and the help of her father and brother, she walked to the altar. And when it was time for 24-year-old Mike to kiss his bride, he didn’t have to bend one bit.
“It was amazing for everyone to be in the room at once to see what I had been working [toward] for so many years since the accident,’’ Jennifer told TODAY’s Matt Lauer with her husband by her side on Tuesday. “Everyone was crying, so I was making faces at them, trying to get them to smile. And then I focused on Mike at the end of the aisle and just made my way to him.’’
“Since the accident, I just realized what a determined woman she is and how really amazing and inspiring she is,’’ Mike told Lauer.
Yet that trip down the aisle was just a part of an emotional day. The couple later danced to Jack Johnson’s “Better Together,’’ their guests marveling as Jennifer rose from her wheelchair to take her husband’s hand on the dance floor. A dance the couple had practiced over and over in the privacy of a physical therapy center was now a special moment for all to see.
“She was more focused than anyone I’ve ever seen,’’ Diane Patzer, who worked with Jennifer at the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan Center for Spinal Cord Recovery, told NBC News.
“I think what makes her so amazing is the technology that allowed her to put on these braces to walk,’’ said Dr. Nancy Snyderman, TODAY’s chief medical editor, who joined Lauer and the couple in the studio on Tuesday.
“They look low-tech, but they’re really just streamed-down high-tech, so they look simpler but they’re lighter. They’re easier for her to manage.’’
But it was not only Jennifer’s personal ambition and the fruits of technology that fueled the moment; it was also the inspiration of her father.
“When I was hurt, he had told me I looked up at him and said, ‘I won’t be able to walk down the aisle with you, I’m so sorry,’ ’’ Jennifer told Lauer. “I knew that was going to be important for him. I’m his only daughter, his first child, and I figured not just for me and for Mike, but for him to be able to walk beside me and walk me down the aisle would be huge as well.’’
A fateful trip
The joy of the wedding between bank teller Jennifer and paramedic Mike, both from Windsor, Ontario, was the polar opposite of the life-changing accident on July 27, 2008, and its aftermath. The couple and some friends were on a road trip to Grand Bend, Ontario, on a sunny day when their van was struck head-on by a car coming in the opposite direction, sending the van rolling over multiple times.
Jennifer was the only one who was not able to exit the wrecked vehicle. Calling on his paramedic training, Mike gently removed her from the vehicle before she was airlifted to a nearby hospital.
Jennifer has suffered a vertebral burst fracture at L1, the first lumbar vertebra on the lower back, as well as nerve damage. “I looked down at my feet, saw my legs in front of me, and that was the first time I actually realized that I couldn’t feel or move my legs anymore,’’ Jennifer told NBC News. “I think from that time I went into complete hysterics.’’
“I felt down her back and I felt a big lump,’’ Mike told NBC News. “I kind of put two and two together and realized what had happened. At that time, my heart kind of sank.’’
In the ensuing months and years, Jennifer underwent multiple surgeries, learned to use a wheelchair and endured grueling, three-hour physical therapy sessions three times a week. She thought maybe all of it was too much for the boyfriend she’d met in 2006 to handle; she could understand if Mike did not want to stay in the relationship.
But it turned out to be quite the opposite for the shy medic who’d frequented Jennifer’s bank so often for deposits and casual conversation in 2006 that she finally slipped him a note with her phone number on it: Rather than run from the situation, Mike proposed.
“I knew that Jen was the person I wanted to spend my life with, no matter what,’’ Mike told NBC News.
“I’ve seen in medicine that this kind of injury is many times more kind of a deal-breaker than something that brings people together,’’ Snyderman said. “It says a lot about Mike and deep love that these guys have done this together. It really is an extraordinary tale.’’
Mike’s wedding proposal soon put Jennifer’s vision of walking down the aisle into motion. Three times a week she traveled 45 minutes each way from her home in Windsor to the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan in Detroit, using a specially modified car with a hand crank for acceleration. Although she will never be able to walk again without the assistance of the braces, she was not going to be denied her special moment on her wedding day.
Jennifer practiced walking in her wedding dress by herself and with assistance from two others, because she could not see her feet while wearing the dress. “It wasn’t a question of ‘if’ or ‘maybe’ I might do it,’’ she told NBC News. “It was definitely something I was bound and determined to do. I guess I defied the odds by taking what life gave me and working with it.
“It didn’t stop me from walking down the aisle, [and] it didn’t stop me from dancing our first dance at our wedding. It won’t stop me from living my life as full as I can possibly live it.’’
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