On the last day of class at Chattahoochee Technical Institute’s School of Culinary Arts, Nicola was in a car passenger seat with a friend on their way to a day at the lake. A lapse, a slip and an over-correction sent the car careening and her life plummeting into a ravine.
Story and photography by Adam Miller
They told her the car had flipped. In an instant so had her life. Her legs were paralyzed by that accident five years ago, and at that point her life stood still in a still-spinning world.
So the passionate, optimistic, creative and daring Nicola Say people see today felt like she was only a shadow of herself for almost four years.
“I went from being excited and on top of the world. I felt pretty invincible,” says Say. “Then I woke up paralyzed in a hospital barely remembering what happened.”
Her friends and family had to tell her the story of how her life had just changed forever. And for a while Say thought her story was over.
The next chapter>>But the story was far from over, because no story should ever end there when there’s a seven-year-old son and the rest of your life to think about.
She had to slowly and painfully relearn how to make her body work again doing everyday tasks such as going from one room to another or finding her way around the kitchen and stove. But loving and caring for her son still came pretty naturally. In fact, it’s kind of what kept her going. Her son, her faith and just a dogged desire to live her life.
“I had to learn a new way of life,” says Say. “I wanted to prove to him that you can bounce back from anything. I just think you can’t give yourself the option to give up.”
The psychology of injury>>Therapist Ken Johnson, who counsels survivors of spinal cord injuries and was himself paralyzed two years ago, says that “recovering” from a spinal cord injury is psychological before it’s physical. Johnson often works with patients from the Atlanta-based Shepherd Spinal Clinic where Say was treated after her accident.
“I think one of the main issues of surviving any tragedy is being able to accept not only the limitations but also the opportunities that injury provides you that you never would have had,” says Johnson. “I don’t like the term new normal. It’s not a new normal. It’s your normal. I would say after two years of being in a wheel chair I probably lived my life more, because I have an appreciation for my life because I’m alive. Appreciate the things you’re able to do and live my life completely. You just get to a place where you’re able to say, ‘Well. That’s life.’ And you move on from there.”
Say says it took her about four years to heal in her mind before she really began to reclaim her former passions.
“Sometimes it takes people a long time to realize life is worth living again. Everybody is different. You’re basically starting from scratch. For me it took four long years. I just decided that I have stuff I want to share with people and I want to be there for my son.”
“Last year I finally was like ‘I gotta get moving.’”
Getting things cooking again>>And that’s exactly what she did. In fact in the last year she’s gone water skiing and rock climbing just to show her son that her injury hasn’t taken away her bravery. And to show the world that it hasn’t taken away her creativity, Say has started cooking, and even catering, again for a recently-formed company “Green Eye Peas.” She cooks Italian, Asian or any cuisine requested, and she’s developing a new line of recipes with an extra healthy twist.
“There are so many healthy essential oils that I’m able to incorporate in my recipes,” Say says. And recently she’s incorporated these recipes into a series of books she’s selling alongside her other creations. You can pre-order her book here: bookpre-sale.eventbrite.com.
“Honestly, I think my injury has made me more aware of what my passions are and to try to treat every day like it’s your last. You honestly have no idea,” says Say. Here I was driving to go to the lake feeling on top of the world and 20 minutes later my world got flipped upside down. It’s important to learn not to feel invincible because nobody is.”
Say says her experience the last five years has helped rediscover her faith in God.
“A lot of people say “don’t you question God?” Call me crazy, but I have faith in his plan for me. It may be a struggle and it may be hard, but there’s a reason I have to go through this struggle,” says Say. “For me it’s almost made me more curious about God and my faith. I want to know him and have a better relationship with him.”