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Kayla Lacy

On the Move

On Memorial Day 2022, Kayla Lacy kicked off the summer by spending a day on the river kayaking with friends. Later that day, the group grabbed lunch and traveled to one of their houses to swim.

Kayla had no warning that a freak accident would soon change her life forever.

“Ten minutes after we got there, I put my bathing suit on and dove into the pool,” Kayla said. “When I dove in, I immediately knew I had entered the shallow end by accident. My chin hit my chest and I heard a snap in my neck.”

That’s when Kayla suddenly felt completely numb from her neck down.

“I was floating to the bottom of the pool, and I couldn’t move,” Kayla said. “I was praying to God that someone would see me. It was so dark out, and there was loud music playing. So, I was just praying and praying.”

Suddenly, Kayla began floating back to the surface of the pool. She heard a friend scream.

“They all started jumping in the pool, and pulled me out,” Kayla said. “They sat me straight up and held me up while asking me to move. I cried out, ‘I can’t move, I can’t feel my body, call my mom, call my mom.’”

Kayla’s friends called her mom and dialed 911. When an ambulance arrived, the EMT immediately recognized that her injury was severe. The care team drove Kayla an hour to University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital Emergency Department, the only Level 1 trauma center serving Central and Eastern Kentucky. Kayla’s mother met them there.

“When I arrived in the emergency room, the doctors did some tests,” Kayla said. “They came out and told us that I had shattered my C-5 vertebra, severed my spinal cord and that there was no chance I’d ever walk again. I was in complete shock.”

Kayla was quickly admitted into a four-hour surgery to try repairing her spinal cord. When she came out, she struggled to breathe and went in and out of consciousness. Kayla spent the next 31 days in one of UK HealthCare’s Intensive Care Units.

“The first two weeks we were in the ICU, we didn’t know if she’d make it or not,” said Kayla’s mom, Glenda Morgan. “But I am just thankful that after all of this, she’s still alive. She is so positive and strong.”

Kayla was able to return home, but it was different home from the one she left on the day of her injury.

“I used to be able to get up and go,” Kayla said. “But now I’m in a wheelchair and I can’t do that anymore. I’ve had to adjust so much. It’s been eight months since the accident, and my motto has since been ‘disabled but still able.’ And so that’s what I do now.”

A positive force

Kayla visits the UK HealthCare Outpatient Therapy Clinic, housed in the Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Center in Lexington, twice a week to work on her movement and strength in her arms, core and legs. She sees Rebekah Pinson, a UK HealthCare occupational therapist, and Richard Osburn, a UK HealthCare physical therapist, who help her move her body and re-gain freedom in her life.

“Kayla’s injury has greatly impacted every aspect of her life,” Pinson said. “She no longer has functional use of her legs and has limited use of her arms and hands, but she is getting stronger every day. She comes in and constantly surprises us with what she can do.”

During each visit, Pinson and Osburn utilize the newly built UK HealthCare rehabilitation gym to help Kayla build muscle and regain movement through resistance training and other mobility exercises that will help her move in and out of her wheelchair, among other weekly tasks. They utilize a variety of devices, such as a hand bike, to push her toward her goals.

The work Kayla puts in is extremely taxing and difficult — yet she remains a positive force. When she enters the therapy gym, her energy lights up the room.

“Kayla is so much fun,” Pinson said. “She has such a great attitude and will try anything we ask of her. She is highly motivated and such an inspiration. I’m very lucky to be part of her recovery here at the Outpatient Therapy Clinic.”

“This is a really great rehab center,” Kayla said. “Before I started coming, I couldn’t even lift my head up. It’s unbelievable, my progress, and I’m just so thankful for the therapists that have worked with me.”

Kayla says that the work she does with Pinson and Osburn not only helps her progress physically, but it has helped her mentally as well.

“Seeing how far I have come since I began therapy here in August has really helped me stay positive and keep going,” Kayla said. “Because of the strength in my arms, I’m able to do my own makeup, and because of the strength in my neck, I can do so much as well. I’ve even started teaching myself how to paint by holding the brush in between my teeth. Because being active and creative has always been so important to me, getting the help I need to continue doing these tasks has been great for my mental health.”

UK Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation is also involved in Kayla’s care. PM&R specialists, like Dr. Nicholas Annichiarico, are called physiatrists, and they help people who have severe neurological and musculoskeletal impairments. Physiatrist are physicians who receive training in improving the function and movement of the human body; in Kayla’s case, after suffering a spinal cord injury. 

One of the first things Annichiarico and other UK HealthCare physiatrists who cared for Kayla did was one of the most crucial to her progress: alleviating the symptoms of post-traumatic stress she suffered while hospitalized.

“It was less so from the injury itself but more from the realization that, ‘I’m underwater and I can’t move,’” Annichiarico said. “The first order of business after she was stabilized and underwent surgery for her spine fracture was to help her sleep by preventing the recurring nightmares from the accident. That would have been an added psychological burden and impaired her ability to psychologically heal from that.”

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In January 2023, Kayla competed in the Ms. Wheelchair pageant and won the title of Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky, part of the Ms. Wheelchair America organization. This platform was specifically made to provide an opportunity for wheelchair users to compete based on advocating for those with disabilities in the community.

“I’m not much of a pageant girl so I didn’t really expect to win,” Kayla said. “I just wanted to do this for fun. But here I am. My platform is to really spread awareness about disabilities. I want to advocate for more handicapped-accessible parking spaces and for small, local hospitals to be more well-equipped to assist people with spinal cord injuries.”

During Kayla’s reign as Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky, she’s made public appearances across the state and participated in media opportunities to advance her platform of advocating for people with disabilities. 

Ultimately, Kayla’s determination and spirit are the driving force behind her great successes and will continue to drive her into the future, inside and outside of the UK HealthCare Outpatient Therapy Clinic.

“I still get to do my makeup, just in a new way,” Kayla said. “I make TikTok tutorials showing others how they can do their makeup if they have a disability like mine. My hopes are to return to cosmetology school, and of course, to walk again one day. I’d like to be able to walk down the aisle at my wedding — even if I need help or a walker. I know I’m going to do it.”

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