KCota 1

Mind Over Matter

Life can change in the blink of an eye. And for Kaitlyn Cota it did. On January 24, 2015, a multi-vehicle car accident left her with a spinal cord injury at the C5-C6 level, meaning she had very limited to no motion or sensation in her arms, hands, core, bladder, legs and feet. With the strength of her support system of close family and friends, Kaitlyn faced the challenge of her life.

“The doctors never say never, but they said I would most likely be wheelchair bound for the rest of my life,” Kaitlyn, a native Vermonter, avid athlete, animal lover and re-write technician with National Life Group recalls. After the long surgery, just as the doctors were about to declare her injury as “complete,” meaning no chance of recovery, Kaitlyn wiggled her toe.

After a week in the Intensive Care Unit at the UVM Medical Center, due to other injuries besides her broken neck, she moved to the inpatient rehabilitation facility at the UVM Medical Center for just over two months. That’s where the next phase of Kaitlyn’s journey began.

At the rehab facility, she completed physical therapy four times a day to help her spinal cord injury, four times a day, every day. Her mom and boyfriend, Ryder, frequently stayed with her at the facility, “which was awesome because they could participate in the everyday care I needed and also in the therapy sessions,” Kaitlyn shared.

Around a month into rehab she started moving her legs again. A week after that she was put in a stand up harness to see if she could lift her feet enough to take a step. She did. She was energized by her progress, “I practiced standing and walking every day after that,” Kaitlyn commented.

She had to re-learn how to use her arms, hands, core, legs and feet. Having a supportive family and friends was critical to her recovery. They were with her every step of the way. Her mother describes Kaitlyn, “She has a heart of gold. She doesn’t complain and is a driven young lady. She continues to amaze us everyday with her hard work and determination.”

In addition to spending as much time as they could with Kaitlyn, her mother and boyfriend also opened a Go Fund Me account to help fund Kaitlyn’s recovery. The response exceeded everyone’s expectations and moved Kaitlyn, “This opened my eyes to just how much support was around me and how much people cared about helping others.”

Her support system included her work family, “I also felt very lucky to be working for National Life and to have such amazing co-workers. Our CEO visited me in the hospital and everyone in the company rallied together to find different ways to support me. This included the people I worked directly with, people from different floors and departments, and even agents and agencies from around the country I worked with. The company was involved every step of the way and was always asking what I needed to make my transition back to work smooth and easy.”

Kaitlyn and Ryder at Niagara Falls this summer
Kaitlyn and Ryder at Niagara Falls, NY this summer

Colleagues, acquaintances and perfect strangers have all been impressed by Kaitlyn’s determination and dedication to her recovery. Caitlin Hull, one of her long-time colleagues commented, “Kaitlyn puts everything she has into everything she does—work and elsewhere—she is strong-minded, independent and determined. Those were things I admired about her long before the accident and even so much more after such a remarkable recovery. To be honest, whenever I see Kaitlyn walking in the halls, I can’t help but smile from afar and think to myself, ‘only Kaitlyn Cota could have pulled off what was believed to be unthinkable.'”

Jeremy Scully, Kaitlyn’s current manager at National Life shared, “There is a tenacity that she carries with her that drives her to overcome any and all challenges to be the best she can be for herself and the best she can be for her teammates.”

Kaitlyn is determined, but humble. These qualities shine through when she talks about her recovery, “To me I am just living life. I don’t see it as doing anything special, I am just doing what I need to do.”

When asked what keeps her motivated, Kaitlyn replied, “My friends and family and my animals. I want to keep up with everyone and don’t expect them to slow down for me. I also like to be independent and have a hard time accepting help. I also have goals in my future that I want to be strong enough for.”

Over a year and a half after the accident, Kaitlyn is feeling stronger. Yes, there are moments of frustration and exhaustion, but also moments of immense progress and joy. And she is pleased with her recovery, “I notice small changes all the time that just prove to me that I am still getting stronger and still making progress in my recovery.”

Kaitlyn offers some advice to others going through a recovery:

  • Have a support system—friends, family and co-workers can all play a role.
  • Seek out physical therapists and rehabilitation facilities.
  • Know that you will get frustrated.
  • Accept help, even when you feel too proud to do so.
  • Check your state’s vocational rehabilitation resources for help with rehab, transitioning back to work and finding accessible housing.
  • Celebrate your successes, big and small.

Through her ongoing recovery, Kaitlyn has remained determined, resilient and extremely modest about all that she has achieved. After over a year and half, she knows there is still progress to be made. And she keeps looking ahead and making goals, “I hope to have as close to a full recovery as possible, and would love to be running in some races.”

Kaitlyn does not have any memory of her accident or what may have caused it. The accident has taught her to be a vigilant driver. She shared, “I definitely try to have the radio and heat or AC set before I start driving and keep my phone away until I get to where I am going. If something needs to be adjusted do it at a stoplight and make sure your distractions are minimal. There is nothing more important than getting where you need to go safely.”

When asked what she would tell others going through a life-changing recovery, Kaitlyn replied, “Where there is a will there is a way. Even if you aren’t seeing as much recovery as you would like you can still do just about anything you put your mind to. There are so many programs out there and assistive technology for people with all types of disabilities. You just have to remind yourself that it’s not that you can’t do it, you just have to do it differently.”