Barely a month after getting engaged, Anna Claire Waldrop drove home from a party with her fiancé when a drunken driver sped up behind them and rammed into their car as he tried to pass. Her vehicle shot into the air, throwing her fiancé through the sunroof, and flipped over several times before finally landing upside down in a ditch, with Anna Claire still strapped inside.
Instead of toasting their upcoming nuptials that Valentine’s Day last year, Anna Claire spent it fighting for her life. Although her beau, James “Jimbo” Waldrop, suffered only minor injuries, the accident had broken Anna Claire’s neck, leaving her a quadriplegic.
Despite the grueling months of therapy ahead, Anna Claire was determined to keep the wedding date she had originally planned.
“Everything was changing in my life and I just really wanted to hold on to something that didn’t have to be changed,” she told TODAY.
On Oct. 22, a little more than eight months after her life-altering accident, Anna Claire married her childhood sweetheart in a garden ceremony in the couple’s hometown of New Albany, Mississippi.
“It was a beautiful day. The weather was so pretty. Everything was beautiful,” Anna Claire said.
Jimbo agreed the day couldn’t have gone better.
“When I saw her in the wedding dress, it was a million times more than I expected. I couldn’t believe it. It was such a blessing,” he said. “Everything went smooth and she looked beautiful and happy.”
The couple, both 24, have known each other since kindergarten, but it wasn’t until the week before they started sixth grade when Jimbo called up Anna Claire and asked her to be his girlfriend.
They remained “boyfriend/girlfriend” through the eighth grade, but Anna Claire said they didn’t truly begin dating until she asked him to a high school dance in their junior year. They’ve been inseparable ever since.
That history helped sustain them through the difficult months following the accident. Anna Claire said she doesn’t remember much about of the crash beyond feeling nervous about the car she saw speeding toward her in the rearview mirror. She said it also took her more than a month before she could absorb the severity of her injuries.
"I was about to get my bachelor’s degree, get married, start my adult life. Everything was on the edge," she said.
It was during her first rehabilitation session, when she looked around her and saw patients like herself, that her paralysis sunk in.
Through it all, she had her family, her friends, and Jimbo, who traveled back and forth every week between her rehabilitation center in Atlanta, and Cleveland, Mississippi, where he was finishing up his biology degree at Delta State University.
"He had to take care of me physically, as well as emotionally, and he did a phenomenal job," she said. "I don’t know if I would have done so well if the roles had been reversed."
Anna Claire also got help from physical, occupational and recreational therapists, several of whom helped take her shopping for a wedding dress. They turned the excursion into a real-life exercise in navigating her community from a wheelchair.
“Its something you envision when you’re growing up, going to look for a wedding dress. You picture it in your head and it just was not the way I had pictured it at all,” she said of the experience.
But her therapists helped make the excursion fun and she spent much of the day laughing through the challenges.
Jimbo, meanwhile, was learning everything necessary to become the primary caregiver for his future wife, despite resistance from physicians who suggested sending her home to her parents.
“They were all over us. Telling her, ‘Not all marriages work out, especially under these circumstances.’ And, ‘You don’t know if he’s going to stay with you through this,’” he said, still irritated by the memories. “They didn’t understand our relationship at all. They didn’t understand anything about us."
After Jimbo graduated from college, he found a job as a middle school science teacher and football coach. He also bought a house he made wheelchair accessible with help from the couple’s family. He converted their home’s garage into a rehabilitation gym.
Jimbo said his relationship with Anna Claire has grown “a thousand times stronger” since the accident. He knows some people feel sorry for them, but says they shouldn't.
“It’s not sad at all. My heart breaks for other people who never got to experience a love that I’ve experienced," he said. "I wake up every single day with somebody I love more than anything in the world."
Anna Claire, who also graduated from college last year, with a degree in speech and hearing science, has regained partial wrist movement and now can wiggle her toes. She and Jimbo, who dresses her every morning and does her hair and makeup, continue to develop their "new normal" together.
Anna Claire said she still gets emotional about the changes in her life. But she shares her story whenever possible with the hope that it will discourage people from drunken driving.
“I’m not going to say everything is just happy all the time, because it’s not. It’s hard,” she said. “But we knew in the long run we wanted to be with each other. We did everything possible to get to this point, so we could be together and happy, and that's where we are now.”