Faces of Christmas

This medical student uses her story to warn people about drunken driving dangers

Gretchen D’Souza, who was paralyzed after a crash caused by a drunken driver, is an advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Gretchen D’Souza, who was paralyzed after a crash caused by a drunken driver, is an advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

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Faces of Christmas

The Fresno Bee's 12 Faces of Christmas is a tribute to unsung residents in the central San Joaquin Valley who make it their mission to help year-round.

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The basics: Gretchen D’Souza, 26, is a third-year medical student on clinical rotations at Kaweah Delta Medical Center in Visalia.

What she does: D’Souza is a member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and uses her story of how she became paralyzed to urge others not to drink and drive. She visits schools to talk to students about the dangers of intoxicated driving. Her public speaking appearances also provide her a venue to show that people are not limited by disabilities.

Why she does it: “When I got injured, I didn’t know what my life was going to be like,” she says. “I was stuck in a wheelchair but I felt that I never wanted my disabilities to define my life, so I think just giving hope to other people and being positive, to motivate other people, really inspired me to get involved and help others.”

Turning point: In 2014 Gretchen and her family were on a layover in Dallas, where she met up with some school friends for dinner. On the way back to the airport, a drunken driver ran a stop sign and hit the vehicle D’Souza was in, causing it to overturn. D’Souza sustained major injuries that left her paralyzed. D’Souza said the support she received during her recovery was the motivation she needed to continue doing the things she wanted to do despite her disabilities and to motivate people to persevere despite their own disabilities.

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Gretchen D’Souza, who was paralyzed after a crash caused by a drunken driver, is an advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Details, details: D’Souza is still mulling over her specific field of medical practice but wants it to include spinal cord injuries. At this point, she says, “My main goal is to get through school to help people in the future.” In 2016 D’Souza received the Red Cross Central Valley Inspirational Hero award. D’Souza said she uses social media to help show all the different things people with disabilities can do, such as surfing and adaptive rock climbing. “Being in a wheelchair doesn’t define what you can and cannot do in life.”

What others say: “She has a wonderful and inquisitive personality,” said Dr. Gaylene Soloniuk-Tays, who was D’Souza’s attending physician for her family medicine rotation. Soloniuk-Tays describes D’Souza as a person who can identify with people’s hardships and who always gets positive responses when she reaches out to people. She also says that D’Souza makes the staff more aware of how much they are lagging in providing handicapped people with full access to opportunities.

How you can help: D’Souza says people can help by registering with madd.org and by helping to educate people about the dangers of drinking and driving.

Larry Valenzuela: 559-441-6084, @larryvalwork

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