Doctors told Gretchen D’Souza — who was declared quadriplegic after being hit by a drunk driver eight months ago — that she would never walk again.
The 23-year-old medical student from Clovis hopes to prove them wrong on Sept. 26 at the Walk Like MADD event in Fresno.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving organizes Walk Like MADD events in more than 60 cities nationwide each year to raise awareness to end drunk driving and raise funds for victims.
“Drunk driving crashes happen too often, but you don’t pay attention when it doesn’t happen to you, or if you’re not affected by it,” Gretchen said. “I really just want to educate other people … if the message just reaches one person, it could save someone’s life.”
Her Walk Like MADD team, #GretchenSquad, (Support Quadriplegics and Unite Against Drunk Driving) has raised nearly $500 so far and hopes to meet its goal of $1,000 by Sept. 26.
HOW YOU CAN HELP Walk Like MADD Fresno will be held Saturday, Sept. 26 at Fresno State. Registration begins at 7 a.m., with opening ceremonies at 8:30 and the 5K walk at 9 a.m. Visit walklikemadd.org/Fresno and click the “Register” or “Donate” buttons to register as part of team #GretchenSquad or donate on behalf of it.
Gretchen, her 22-year-old sister Gretel and their parents Dencil and Gilbert D’Souza were flying to New Orleans for a family vacation on Dec. 26, 2014.
“We had a long layover in Dallas, so I met up with some school friends for dinner,” Gretchen explained. “It was on the way back to the airport that a drunk driver ran a stop sign and hit us.”
The rest of the D’Souzas, in line to board their next flight, were surprised to receive a call from a Dallas phone number, telling them that Gretchen was in an overturned car, injured but conscious.
Gretchen had to be cut out of the car, which had flipped several times and came to rest upside down. Although she was wearing her seatbelt, she was partially ejected from the car because of her small stature, her mom said.
It was on the way back to the airport that a drunk driver ran a stop sign and hit us.”
Gretchen’s friend who was driving the car suffered a broken arm.
“I remember him screaming,” Gretchen said. “My whole body was numb. I was wearing an infinity scarf around my neck, and my face was smashed into the ground, so I couldn’t move or talk properly. I was conscious through the whole thing.”
She was taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, one of the nation’s leading trauma centers, where her family eventually arrived.
“I was just thinking, ok, we can still go to New Orleans for our family vacation,” Dencil D’Souza said. “Then I saw the chaplain there and realized it was more serious.”
Gretchen’s neck was broken, and she was rushed into surgery that lasted about five hours.
“I have C5-C6 vertebral artery damage on the right side,” she said. “Doctors took a piece of bone from my hip and put it into my neck. Because I still had some feeling, they called it an incomplete spinal cord injury... I’m an incomplete quadriplegic.”
After the surgery Gretchen was in extreme pain and couldn’t do anything for herself. She remained in intensive care for five days before being moved to a “regular room,” her mother said. Then she was flown to Kaiser Permanente Vallejo Medical Center in northern California.
Gretchen remained in Vallejo for five weeks for inpatient therapy.
When she began, she was in a huge wheelchair equipped with a chest strap and waist belt.
“I had no trunk support, so I’d fall out of the chair (without the straps),” Gretchen said. “I couldn’t put my contacts in, and my parents couldn’t do it for me, so I couldn’t see anything. I knew people by voice recognition.”
She went through three hours of physical therapy and one hour of occupational therapy each day, relying on family members to push her there and also feed and bathe her.
“They let me use a power chair about three and a half weeks in so I could get myself to therapy. I was more independent after that,” Gretchen said.
Today, Gretchen goes to therapy four to five days a week, along with a twice a month visit to Fremont for Project Walk private therapy.
“They have a different, adaptive way of trying to get you back on your feet,” she said. “I feel like there has been a lot of improvement.”
I really want to walk a little bit in Walk Like MADD.”
Gretchen D’Souza, who doctors declared quadraplegic in December.
Gretchen can move her hands, but has better use of her left, nondominant hand. She navigates through her family’s single-story home near Buchanan High School in a manual wheelchair.
Her dog, an 11-year-old Golden Retriever named Mallie, affectionately follows her everywhere and sits on one of the chair’s wheels whenever it comes to a stop.
“I’m working on my arm strength, and I can transfer (to a bed, chair, etc.) on my own now,” she said. “Doctors didn’t think I’d ever be able to move… so I’m doing pretty good, actually. My left leg moves.”
According to research, spinal cord injury patients get the most return in the first year and a half after the injury, and then progress slows down, Gretchen said.
“That’s why we’re trying to do as much as we can now,” she said.
And for someone who was told she’d be forever paralyzed, she’s doing a lot.
On her blog, gretchensquad.wordpress.com, there is a photo of her at a Project Walk therapy session -- standing.
“I really want to walk a little bit in Walk Like MADD,” Gretchen said.
“And you will. You will,” her mother chimed in.
The D’Souzas have been overwhelmed with community support.
Gretchen, a lifelong Clovis resident, attended Cedarwood Elementary, Clark Intermediate and Clovis High schools; she graduated in 2009. Former classmates and their parents have donated money, brought the family home cooked meals, and stopped by to play board games with Gretchen to help her increase her hand and arm strength.
The community donated enough to Gretchen’s GoFundMe account that her family was able to purchase a wheelchair-accessible van — essential to taking her to out-of-town appointments.
“My former soccer coach volunteered to help with the bathroom renovation,” Gretchen said. “They did a roll-in shower and lowered the sink so that I could reach it.”
The family has had to remove the carpet from all areas of the home so that Gretchen can use her wheelchair. They’ve installed ramps around the home and replaced furniture, including Gretchen’s bed and the family dining table.
“We’re trying to find handymen to help, and just do it little by little,” Dencil said.
Focused on the future
Gretchen said she has remained focused on getting better and looking to the future rather than the past.
I just want to have the opportunity to help other people.”
In fact, she and her family don’t even know the name of the 23-year-old drunk driver that caused the life-altering crash.
“Let the Lord handle him,” Dencil said. “He will forgive. We have to be forgiving for us to heal.”
Gretchen, who completed two years of medical school at American University of Antigua before the crash, is studying to take her national board exams.
“It was always our dream to do charity work when she finished medical school,” said Dencil, who is a nurse at Kaiser Permanente. Gilbert D’Souza is a nurse practitioner at the VA Hospital in Fresno, and Gretel is also a medical student at American University of Antigua. “It was going to be the four of us. We wanted to open an orphanage...”
“We will,” Gretchen said. “We still will, it’s just going to take a little longer.”
After undergoing extensive therapy for her paralysis, Gretchen is leaning more toward a medical career in rehabilitation, but says she is still keeping her options open.
“There is a lot more spinal cord injury research — September is National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month — and with technology nowadays there is so much opportunity,” she said, explaining that special “standing chairs” would allow her to perform all of an able-bodied doctor’s duties.
“I just want to have the opportunity to help other people.”
Gretchen has always had a heart for community service, Dencil said. Her daughter volunteered at Kaiser Permanente, donated to the food bank, helped out at the Rotary Club’s annual crab feed, helped the Make-A-Wish Foundation and was heavily involved with the American Glaucoma Society.
“She would even go around getting bottles and recycle them to buy clothes for children around Christmas time,” Dencil said.
Although it’s a big change for her to be on the receiving end of charity, Gretchen is paying it forward. She donated an electric wheelchair she no longer uses to someone in need. She is also working with Walk Like MADD’s local director to come up with more ways to help other victims of drunk drivers and their families.
Her mere presence and positive attitude is encouraging to those who meet her.
“I’ve talked to students at Clovis High, just to be a positive influence and let them know that you can do anything,” she said. “It’s not impossible.”