Courtney Sanchelli Turns Injury into Life of Quality, Courage and Support

To an outside observer, any one slice of Courtney Sanchelli’s life would seem wholly unremarkable. Born and raised in Jefferson, she graduated from high school in 2014. The 23-year-old still lives in town, does not have an extraordinary job or hold any public office, hasn’t yet made her mark in the broader world, and certainly is not the type to show up in headlines or police blotters. Nope, she is pretty unremarkable.

Sometime in Sanchelli’s sophomore year, the typically A-B student saw her grades slip. Like many of her peers, she felt disengaged and separated from the group. One day she sat herself down for a hypothetical conversation and realized the futility in her feelings of self-disparagement. Instead, she decided to shift her outlook and participate in her own life,. Before long, everything began to improve: her attitude, relationships, grades, and ultimately her life and impact on those around her. How did she pull herself out of the teenage funk? “Fight for today, because tomorrow isn’t promised.” The phrase rolls off her tongue with ease, obviously not the first time she had stated the sentiment.

Courtney with her brother before the accident. (Photo: Ulla Vinkman)

The Accident

At four years old, Courtney came back to consciousness unable to speak and barely able to move. A machine breathed for her. Bathed in fluorescent light, her mother nowhere to be seen, she heard muffled voices, whirs, and beeps. Her last memory was sitting in the car seat, her brother riding shotgun and mom at the wheel. There was an accident, and the little girl suffered a damaged spine, awakening in the hospital  mostly paralyzed from the neck down. That day began a lifelong journey of “fighting for today.” That day was the first in a lifetime of working remarkably hard, being remarkably supported, and using remarkable creativity and innovation in order to live her unremarkable life.

The first lesson was how to communicate without the ability to speak while on a ventilator. Courtney and her father devised a system for answering yes and no questions by blinking her eyes, which enabled her to communicate during six months of rehabilitation at Mountainside Children’s Hospital (a facility whose praises Courtney will never stop singing). In that time, she watched six roommates fail to overcome their various challenges, learning the value of living for the moment at a young age.

Courtney with her mother while in a halo after the accident. (Photo: Ulla Vinkman)

Courtney recovered and left the hospital able to speak when the ventilator exhaled for her. She attended public school from kindergarten on, recalling with a smile each of her teachers by name. In third grade, she was introduced to new technology: a head tracker system. After applying a small sticker to her forehead, a software program was able to trace her head movements via a webcam. Through this interface, she gained access to the internet, writing tools, music, and movies by using her laptop.

At age eight, Courtney returned to Mountainside for three months (“not long” as she recalls it) to learn another skill that would grant her further independence; she finally learned to breathe on her own without the aid of the ventilator. At 16, she underwent another procedure at Mountainside to fuse some of her vertebrae, enabling her to leave behind the rigid body splint she had worn since the accident. While still dependent on a wheelchair for mobility, the sense of freedom and un-encumbrance was remarkable to her. It was at this point that Courtney made the decision to “adjust her attitude” and start to engage with the world around her. “You gotta keep your head up,” her Grandpa would exhort. With that in mind, she embarked on a life of purpose, productivity, and promotion.

Today

Courtney creates art, works with younger people going through the types of challenges she understands so well, reads and writes, and continues to stay in touch with the staff and clients at Mountainside. Currently she advocates for a systemic change in its rules to allow certain patients to continue their care at the facility past adolescence, which she knows would lead to better patient outcomes.

Courtney along with her parents, Deb and Mike. (Photo: Ulla Vinkman)

While Courtney appreciates how accessible much of Jefferson is, she would like to see more consideration in the planning and design phases of new facilities across the town. She also hopes for the return of a wheelchair-accessible swing like the one that brought her and others so much thrill and joy. 

In general, Sanchelli hopes to find a path to become a more vocal advocate for the rights of those with unique needs and abilities, and believes she can offer insight and perspective on projects aiming to be more inclusive for all.

Dallas, the family dog, expressing his devotion to Courtney. (Photo: Ulla Vinkman)

The way Courtney lives brings to mind a quote from Secrets Buried, a play she and her friend Haley James wrote and published: “I said yes to the absence of fear, the embrace of love, and the happiness of the rest of our lives.” We are fortunate to have in our community the voice of this young woman, one of the many unremarkable people we see each day living truly remarkable lives.

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