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â-  Hillsboro native Erin Schneider, paralyzed in a crash, gets retrofitted van

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Erin Schneider, who was paralyzed in a July 2011 car accident after glancing down to change the music on her iPod, recently became the owner of a retrofitted van that allows her more independenceOn July 22, 2011, Erin Schneider was driving down Northwest Hornecker Road in Hillsboro when a quick glance at her iPod changed the 24-year-old’s life.

Distracted by changing the music on her iPod, Schneider didn’t notice her car veering out of her lane. When she overcorrected her steering, the car turned off the road, hit a spot where a ditch and a driveway met, and flipped.

Immediately, Schneider became one of the thousands of people injured each year in vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers — 424,000 in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In Schneider’s case she was paralyzed, sustaining a spinal cord injury that left her a C6-7 Tetraplegic — a condition that paralyzed her from the torso down. She still has movement in her arms, but no dexterity in her hands.

“Keep your cell phone in your pocket and turn it off while driving,” said Schneider, speaking from experience. “Nothing is more important than your life.”

Still, Schneider sees a silver lining to the incident — as does her family.

“It makes you really appreciate what you have,” said Robin McGann, Schneider’s older sister. “It was really hard at first, but just having her here [alive] means the world to me.”

Now 28 and a Cornelius resident, Schneider too has a newfound appreciation for life. Her near-death experience taught her to live life to the fullest and to move forward with no regrets, she says.

And recently she got something practical as well: a specialized van that will give her back some of her independence.

 Always ‘super independent’

Schneider’s crash kept her in Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center in Portland for 117 days, unable to move at first due to her swollen spinal cord. After doctors were able to assess the damage, Schneider spent six weeks doing inpatient therapy, followed by another year of outpatient therapy.

“They taught me how to use my new body,” Schneider recalled. “I feel like I came from nothing to everything now.”

Before that fateful distraction, Schneider was an active teenager who spent most of her time outdoors. She enjoyed wakeboarding, snowboarding and hunting. She cheered at Glencoe High School and became an all-star cheerleader with a group called Thunder Elite her senior year.

She continued to cheer when she left for Southern Oregon University in 2004. During her time in Ashland she coached gymnastics and majored in health and physical education.

When she graduated in 2008, she moved back home to Hillsboro and taught gymnastics at The Gym-Nest.

Three years passed before that glance at her iPod.

“The hardest thing for me is that I’ve always been super independent,” Schneider said. “So when I got in my car accident, having to ask for help has been super hard, so grasping just a little bit at a time and getting back to my independence is the best and hugest thing for me right now.”

Her positive attitude is everything. “It’s just what you make of it,” she said.

Because of the support she’s received over the years, Schneider has been able to gain some of her freedom back. In the summer of 2013, she and her family held a fundraiser to raffle off vacations to family-owned timeshares, along with donations that collected enough money for her to purchase a hand cycle so she could go out and bike with her friends and family. One of her favorite places to ride is the Banks-Vernonia State Trail; 10 miles is her record.

“It’s really nice because I can get out, have a new activity and it’s exercise for me,” Schneider said. “That was my first big thing.”

The second big thing 

On May 20, Schneider reached another milestone — she got behind the wheel of a retrofitted van that allows her to drive to and from work.

It was a long process. In the summer of 2014 she held the same vacation-home fundraiser but this time for the van. Donations from friends, family and strangers also helped make it possible.

Schneider says she is extremely grateful for her friends, family and her gymnastics family who all helped promote the fundraiser.

Another big source of help was Vocational Rehabilitation, a state-funded program that helps people with disabilities get back to work.

“It’s been really nice to get the van and to feel like I have freedom,” Schneider said. “It’s definitely been a life-changing experience and I feel like I haven’t explored everything with the van yet.”

The van fits her personal needs with hand controls for gas, brakes and steering. There’s also a ramp and a motorized driver chair to allow her easy access to the driver’s seat.

McGann remembers taking the van out with Schneider for the first time.

“I couldn’t stop smiling,” McGann said. “I was like a proud mom who just potty-trained her kid.”

Today Schneider is able to work six hours a week at Quality Plus Services, where she handles purchase-order entry and payroll. Schneider hopes to start working more, possibly for local schools, and get out in the community.

Last year Schneider spoke to Pacific University’s physical therapy students about her spinal cord injury. She also returned to Good Samaritan several times to encourage newly-injured spinal cord patients.

“I’m pretty much telling them that life’s going to be OK and that ‘this is everything that I’ve been through and if I can do it, you can do it,’” Schneider said. “Giving them a positive outlook brings them more hope. I just see relief on their faces.”

Motivational speeches are something she wants to continue doing.

“Life isn’t over,” Schneider said. “It will always move on …it’s just a different path.”

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