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Motherhood Contributes to Craig Grad's "Rich and Precious" Life

May 06, 2022

When Leslie Nelson thinks back on the course of her life, Craig Hospital plays a pivotal role—even helping her on her journey to become a mother.

In 1983, when she was just 16, Leslie sustained a spinal cord injury and a traumatic brain injury in a car crash.

Before the injury, she had a “typical American childhood” at her home near Allentown, Pennsylvania. She ran track, played violin and piano, sang in the chorus, and worked three jobs: a paper route, detasseling corn for a local farmer, and a lifeguard at the local pool.

“I loved to ride my bike down to the ice cream shop and go shopping with my friends,” she says. “It was pretty idyllic.”

Leslie and her parents were en route to a camping trip at the Chesapeake Bay when they were in the accident. Her father died, and Leslie was airlifted to the Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. She was intubated and was in a coma for ten days.

During that time, her mother had to decide where her daughter should go for rehabilitation. “She looked at places closer to us in Pennsylvania, but decided on Craig because it had a younger patient population and had both TBI and SCI programs,” she says. Leslie was flown to Denver and spent one month at Swedish Hospital before coming to Craig.

Leslie says she had a typical teenage attitude when she first got to Craig. “I was pretty unmotivated, I wanted everyone to do things for me, and I thought my OT was too preppy and not cool,” she says.

It took a tough-talking physical therapist, and the dangling carrot of a colorful wheelchair, to turn her attitude around. She decided that she would go home, go to college, and find a cure for paralysis.

“At Craig, they help you understand that you might have been dealt some bad cards, but you’ve got to deal with it, and figure out how to move on,” Leslie reflects. “They said ‘you’re still Leslie, who happens to be in a wheelchair. This is not going to define who you are.’”

Leslie returned to a school and community that was not accessible as this was before ADA laws. Her friends did not understand her new reality, and some of her teachers were uncomfortable with her wheelchair. Despite the challenges, she was able to finish her senior year and learned to drive herself.

“At graduation, I got my diploma and popped a wheelie to get down the makeshift ramp—everyone in the stands gasped,” she says. “Craig prepared me to do all of that.”

She started college in New York to study biotechnology, and eventually transferred to Arizona where she would not have to deal with a hilly campus in the snow. She earned a degree in sociology and went on to receive her MBA.

She met her future husband, John, at the church she attended. “I was considering two guys at the time, Mr. Wall Street and the man I went on to marry, Mr. Tattoo.”

“Mr. Tattoo took me to a theme park, carried me to the front car of a roller coaster, and asked me to ‘ride the ups and downs with him’ and be his girlfriend.”

John proposed eight months later and their wedding was profiled in Bride’s Magazine.

Leslie and John knew that they wanted to have a family. Before they tried to get pregnant, she came to Craig for a re-evaluation. Craig clinicians saw no reason not to try and gave her the phone number of another patient who had a baby. After talking with her, they decided to proceed.

Joshua (JC) was born in 2000. Leslie’s labor was induced, as she would be unable to feel contractions.

At the time, there was not much accessible baby equipment on the market. Leslie and John “figured it out,” adapting available equipment so that Leslie could care for JC on her own. At first, he slept in a bassinet next to her bed within easy reach. As JC grew, her uncle adapted a crib so that it opened from the side. They created a roll-under feeding table out of an office desk. JC rode on her lap, secured in a front pack that left Leslie’s hands free to push.

“During the baby stage, you’re drained from not sleeping, and physically and mentally exhausted from trying to adapt to a brand new life, work, and still take care of your body,” she says.

She and John focused on teaching obedience as their son got older. “When you’re in a chair, there’s no wiggle room. Your child can’t run away from mom, because you can’t get them as easily,” she says. “We taught him to obey the first time, right away, and with a happy attitude.”

Baby Kaylee joined the family 22 months later. “JC learned quickly how to help mommy with wheelchair stuff and with baby Kaylee,” she says.

Leslie remained active with her children, volunteering in their classrooms, serving on the PTA, and supporting their extracurricular activities. The family comes back to Craig every year so that Leslie can be evaluated. They combine their trips with ski outings in Winter Park, where their kids learned to ski as soon as they were potty-trained.

“Skiing is our sport, it’s where we’re all on the same level,” she says. “I’m better than probably 80% of the people out there, and being on a ski slope is better than any drug you could get.”

JC is now a student at Colorado State University, and Kaylee goes to school in Hawaii. Leslie and John are adjusting to life as new empty nesters.

“I hate it,” she jokes. “But the awesome thing is these are great kids, and they’re making great choices.”

Leslie and John believe that growing up with a wheelchair user for a mom helped the children become more empathetic. Both kids are pursuing careers in helping professions.

She encourages other individuals with spinal cord injuries to pursue parenthood, pointing out that there are many more resources available now with the advent of the Internet.

“My life has been so much richer because I have these children,” Leslie says. “Sure, there can be challenges, and you have hard moments, but being a mom is a precious gift!”