FORSYTH COUNTY -- The afternoon of Dec. 11, 2015, changed everything for Denise Carleton. It was supposed to be a joyous trip to pick up her daughter from college for winter break.
Eager to see Hali, Carleton said she was speeding and got pulled over by a state trooper. The officer was out of his car speaking with Carleton when an 18-wheeler crossed the line, soared over the state trooper’s car, and slammed into Carleton’s SUV.
“I don’t remember it happening at all,” Carleton said. “The next thing I knew I woke up in a trauma center in a hospital in Tupelo, Mississippi.”
The doctors explained to her that her back was broken and she needed surgery.
“He said, ‘Well, we can do the surgery here, but you live in Atlanta where you have Grady — the best trauma center in the country.’”
Carleton’s husband, Gary, was in Boston at the time of the accident but got there as soon as he could catch a flight home. She spent four days in ICU before a medical jet flew her to Grady Hospital. On Tuesday, she was prepped and ready to undergo the extensive surgery.
As a result of the accident, Carleton sustained a T4 spinal cord injury, which left her paralyzed from the waist down.
For an active mother of two teenage daughters, this was devastating to Carleton, her family and her friends. Carleton said she always just looked ahead. One week after her surgery, she arrived at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta to begin the long road of recovery, beginning with intense physical therapy.
“I had to learn everything — how to roll over, how to sit up, how to dress myself — it was really hard and exhausting.
“I really cannot find the words to express how incredible all of the people were — the doctors, nurses, physical therapists — even the people who cleaned my room were amazing.”
Carleton explained that the Shepherd Center wants patients to learn how to cope with their new life by ensuring they can care for themselves as best as possible.
“When you are able, you learn to go to the grocery store, cook, bathe yourself, just everything so you are able to live as normal of a life as possible,” Carleton said.
While at Shepherd, Carleton’s friends and family were on another mission — to make sure she had a house to come home to where she could get around and start to pick up her life where she left it off — albeit in a wheelchair. They had an elevator installed that goes to all levels of Carleton’s home, and modified her bathroom so she could bathe herself. In addition, other modifications were made to the kitchen so she could reach countertops, shelves, etc.
While Carleton strives to be completely self sufficient, she realized fairly quickly she needed some help and companionship.
A friend referred Stacey Harrell to the Carleton family, and Stacey began coming daily to help.
“Stacey is a forever friend — we hit it off right away, and now she is truly a part of our family,” Carleton said.
Stacey helps Carleton stay active with a standing frame and FES bike to help her maintain bone density and strength.
“We do all sorts of things — we’ve even been to Vail [Colorado] and went snow tubing, snowmobiling. Next year we are going to go skiing,” she said excitedly.
In addition, she learned to drive.
“I really wanted to for our daughter Hannah. For so long she was getting rides everywhere — I wanted to be able to drive her to her school and her activities.”
Carleton has long been involved in the community through efforts with her nonprofit organization. She is co-founder and executive director of Reaping Nature: Educational Outreach Foundation which strives to educate children and adults about how to care for their natural environment. Her organization has been recognized by Keep Georgia Beautiful and Keep America Beautiful. A children’s book author, Carleton has won numerous awards for her efforts, including Volunteer of the Year and Educator of the Year by Keep Forsyth County Beautiful.
“I am working diligently to get back in the groove of my volunteer efforts,” Carleton said.
“I partner with the Sawnee Woman’s Club as a member of the Conservation Department to support KFCB programs and contests for schools and kids.”
Carleton also partnered with Friends of Tony on the Five Points Challenge 5K and last year donated $2,000 to the Shepherd Center.
She recently met with her former therapist and passionate environmentalist, Cheryl Linden, to discuss implementing single stream recycling at the Shepherd Center.
Carleton said at a family meeting at Shepherd, doctors think there is hope she will walk independently again. “Research is key — my hope is in this research,” she said.
When asked if she was angry this happened to her, Carleton said absolutely not.
“I have experienced so much love and support from everyone — family, friends, the medical community — I am not angry,” she said. “My husband and daughters have been nothing short of amazing. This has brought all of us closer together.”