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'Paralyzed bride' renews vows with husband, shares update 11 years after accident

Rachelle Friedman Chapman, who was paralyzed in an accident at her bachelorette party in 2010, renewed her wedding vows to defy stereotypes.
/ Source: TODAY

Rachelle Friedman Chapman's initial thought about renewing her wedding vows came after the heartbreaking loss of her original diamond engagement ring about nine months ago.

However, when she and husband Chris Chapman held the ceremony on July 22 in front of family and friends at Fearrington Village in Raleigh, North Carolina, it wasn't about getting a new ring: It was about celebrating their enduring love and the strides Friedman Chapman has made 11 years after an accident at her bachelorette party left her paralyzed.

Rachelle Friedman Chapman renewed her vows with husband Chris Chapman 10 years after tying the knot and 11 years after she was paralyzed in an accident at her bachelorette party. Kira Atwell-Grantz / Blessed Reflections Photography

"When we first got married, we wanted to show the world true love did exist," Friedman Chapman, 35, told TODAY. "We did this one for us, to celebrate our love 10 years after a lot of people doubted that it could last forever.

"We didn't do it to prove everyone wrong, but at the same time, my advocacy is to break stereotypes. People automatically assumed he's gone now that we're not in the media spotlight like when we first got married. I would hope more people had a love that if their significant other was hurt, they wouldn't leave."

Her husband often read comments on stories about them and saw people assumed he would leave once the public attention died down.

"I took it personally, you just can't believe it, but negativity is out there," Chris Chapman, 38, told TODAY. "Over time you get desensitized and keep doing what you do, living the marriage and being successful."

The ceremony was made more special by the presence of their daughter, Kaylee, 6, who was incorporated into the celebration. The couple, who welcomed Kaylee in 2015 via surrogate, had her join in their first dance to "I Won't Let Go" by Rascal Flatts, a song that had increased in resonance for them after Friedman Chapman's accident.

They didn't have a flower girl at their 2011 wedding, but this time Kaylee was able to handle that duty. The couple exchanged vows they wrote themselves while a friend officiated.

"We exchanged rings and we also got a special ring for Kaylee, with all of our birth stones together," Friedman Chapman said. "We put that on her finger, so there was a whole little moment for her that felt more special."

The couple's 6-year-old daughter, Kaylee, served as the flower girl at the ceremony. Kira Atwell-Grantz / Blessed Reflections Photography

Chris Chapman also re-proposed to her while they were out at a restaurant, and he upgraded the diamond ring she lost to a 1-carat diamond with some help from Diamonds Direct.

The gathering of family and friends was smaller due to COVID-19 concerns, so it felt more intimate. Friedman Chapman also took the time to reflect on how far she has come.

She was paralyzed from the chest down after one of her bridesmaids playfully pushed her into a shallow pool at her bachelorette party in 2010, and she fractured the C6 vertebra in her neck. Her initial wedding had to be postponed until 2011 as she began her recovery and adjusted to her new life.

"Ten years later my body and my mental state are so much stronger," she said. "My arms are bigger, I look healthier, I'm driving now and getting in and out of bed on my own now. It's such a stark difference."

"She continues to grow as an individual and get stronger with her physical ability and to grow as a mother as far as what she figures out she's able to do with Kaylee," Chris Chapman said. "She's found a way to find her own path for success."

Another emotional change in the years since their first wedding has been in personal relationships. None of the members of her bridal party who were there when she was paralyzed were at the renewal ceremony.

"To be honest, I did lose a lot of friends after the accident," Friedman Chapman said. "The girl who pushed me in the pool came out and explained that she just wasn't about staying friends.

"For the first year it was about the girl who pushed me in, and we just cared about her being OK. I think I worked her through that, but once she was done getting support from me, and I needed the support after the first year, I was left alone with my injury. I had another friend who blames me for the accident for how I chose to go into the pool. It was really bad for my mental health to continue to be friends, and it was really toxic for a while, so it was really sad because these were two childhood friends."

Friedman Chapman has since found a sense of purpose in dispelling stereotypes about the disabled community and living in a wheelchair. Whether it's been going skydiving, holding a racy photo shoot or becoming a mother, she is out to change the way people who have disabilities are viewed.

The couple wrote their own vows and had a friend officiate the ceremony. Kira Atwell-Grantz / Blessed Reflections Photography

"A lot of people doubted that our relationship could last or asked, 'How is she going to be a mom, she's in a wheelchair, that's selfish and irresponsible,'" she said. "I didn't take it personally. There's just so many stereotypes. Just posting a picture of Kaylee and I going for a walk, that's advocacy because people get to see our family."

She has worked to show that her relationship with her husband is one of equals, not one of being completely dependent on the other.

"I do need help, I'm not 100% independent, but there's so many ways he needs help as well," Friedman Chapman said. "He has more anxiety than I do and gets a little overwhelmed, and I'm a very chill person, so I'm able to counteract that for him.

"People see disabilities and automatically assume the able-bodied person is doing more than the person in the chair. It's a totally equal relationship between what I give him and he gives me."

The couple have also tried to quash the notion of Chris Chapman as some kind of saint because he has stayed with his wife.

"People will come up to him and thank him for taking care of me and say he's an amazing person," Friedman Chapman said. "I'm not like a charity case after 10 years. We're in this together for a reason, we just want people to stop looking at it like it's this public service. He's a great guy, but if he wasn't in love, he wouldn't be here."

I would put our marriage up against anybody else. Life has been tough, but the marriage hasn't. That's what's held us together.

Chris Chapman

Their bond also strengthened when the pandemic hit. Friedman Chapman does not have the ability to cough because of her injury, so a respiratory illness like COVID-19 could have easily been fatal. That meant Kaylee went months without seeing other children, and Chris Chapman did his job as an eighth-grade science teacher remotely in order to reduce the chances of bringing the coronavirus home.

"It was awful because she's an only child, but I had to be very careful because I am higher risk," Friedman Chapman said about Kaylee. "Thankfully during the summer she was able to do things outside and be somewhat social with other kids."

"It was tough because every time we passed a playground, Kaylee would be like, 'Why can't we go play on that playground?''' Chris Chapman said. "It's hard for a kid to swallow even if they logically understand the reason behind it."

Through it all, their love has stood the test of time and a pandemic, which made the 10-year celebration a special one.

"I would put our marriage up against anybody else," Chris Chapman said. "Life has been tough, but the marriage hasn't. That's what's held us together."