The date was Nov. 30, 2008. The time, lost in memory now, was late. The roads, dark. Visibility, spotty. High on life from a concert they had attended that night in Houston, Joe Carter and his girlfriend, Vanessa Cizmar, were on their way back home.
For Cizmar, the next few months were a medicated blur. For Carter, they were a dramatic haze. On their way home—a short drive from the city center—they had hit a cow standing in the middle of the road.
The accident instantly paralyzed Cizmar from the neck down. She was 25 years old. After spending three weeks in the Intensive Care Unit, she was transferred to Houston's TIRR Memorial Herrman Rehabilitation and Research Hospital where she stayed for several months. She couldn't speak or breathe on her own. Placed in a halo for her spinal injury, she couldn’t move anything either. Doctors said it would be nearly impossible for her to ever breathe or move on her own again.
Six years later, and Cizmar and Carter are now engaged.
They have been by each other’s side for more than 10 years, and while not officially married, have already lived through more “for better or worses” and “in sickness and in healths” than most married couples will ever have to endure.
Devotion to each other and devotion to a regular fitness routine is what they credit for keeping their relationship in the shape it’s is today.
“We pretty much structure my day around physical therapy and bowel movements!” Cizmar said, pausing to laugh before launching into what a typical day looks like for her and her fiancé. She no longer takes for granted the small victories of life. When you’ve lived through a time where you can’t comprehend doing anything on your own, your appreciation for moments of independence changes.
In the morning, Carter lifts her out of bed and they immediately check her blood sugar. (Cizmar was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 2 and still deals with the daily realities of the disease.) If Cizmar is stable, she gets on the FES (Functional Electrical Stimulation) Bike—with electrodes on her arms and legs to help stimulate her peripheral nerves. According to the FES website, “Stimulating the peripheral nerves evokes patterned movement of the legs or the arms. [In this way], the bike enables your muscles to perform work even though you may have lost all or some voluntary control of your muscles.” For Cizmar, hopping on the FES bike is a mandatory daily movement exercise that helps soften and stretch out her stiff muscles.
In the afternoon, after they’ve had lunch and rested for a bit, they work out on the system Cizmar credits for helping her gain most of her strength and independence back: Primal 7. Developed by Brian DeMarco, who played as an offensive lineman for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cincinatti Bengals—and whose professional career ended in him taking painkillers to mask the pain of extensive spinal damage sustained while playing in the NFL—Primal 7 is a workout system that supports bodyweight to help promote and enhance functional movement.
The system has saved Cizmar thousands of hours that could have been spent driving back and forth from physical therapy sessions. With Primal 7, she can now work out in the comfort of her home—with Carter by her side. “There are definitely days where I don't want to keep doing all of this,” Cizmar admits. “But Joe holds me accountable.”
Even though her day-to-day improvements are almost unnoticeable, the progress she's made in the last six years is nothing short of miraculous. The couple credits her daily determination and endless supply of faith for the considerable recovery. While still wheelchair-bound, Cizmar continues to regain movement in her arms and neck and, with Carter walking by her side, she can now take aided steps—moving herself from her wheelchair to the car. A sight her doctors no doubt would drop their jaws at in disbelief.
“In a lot of ways, we lost everything we had worked for in our lives [that day],” Carter said of the accident. “But we make a conscious choice to focus on recovery and acceptance.” Working out together is a way, an outlet, for them to transmute their mutual respect and love for one another.
How they see it, there is no alternative. Their admiration for each other is shown through their daily actions and self-sacrifices. There literally isn't anything that Carter hasn't or won't do for her. “We went from being vulnerable to extremely vulnerable in the blink of an eye,” Cizmar said.
Like any couple, they fear the unknown and what lies ahead, but they also acknowledge they've already been down one of the worst roads possible together. And still, when they look into each other’s eyes, they see that intangible spark that makes their lips break into a smile.
Instead of worrying about what the future has in store, they decide to be excited about the unknown. Sometimes that means taking risks, even if it is sometimes inconvenient.
“If you never take risks, you’re never going to have any fun!” Cizmar said, adding that she loves a challenge because it makes her stronger and more fearless. This past summer, she got on a surfboard and floated the San Marcos River with her fiancé. She laughed when other tubers on the river unknowingly joked with Carter because he was feeding her sips of beer with a straw. “They had no idea I couldn't lift my arms since I was sitting in my tube like everyone else!” Cizmar said.
For anyone who takes the time to get to know the couple, it's clear they are happy and want what is best for each other at all times. They hope their story serves as an inspiration for others who are struggling and having to make sacrifices. And they are always pushing ahead in their personal and fitness goals.
For Cizmar, building her strength means improving her independence. Her current goal? To look down the aisle on her wedding day, see Carter waiting for her at the altar, and walk herself down the aisle to start a family with the man who loves her and has stood by her side this whole time.
Real Stories: Vanessa and Joe from Primal 7 on Vimeo.