Story and graphic by ANGIE BRADSHAW
It was a warm summer day in 1998 in the small town of Emmett, Idaho, where Jeremy Chatelain and his family enjoyed a traditional family vacation. That afternoon they floated down the Payette, a river so sluggish that Chatelain said, “The dead fish would beat them down.”
About 15 feet off the water was a bridge where they would jump off of into the water, an old childhood pastime. Connie, his wife of one year, jumped off and Chatelain dove head first shortly after. Seconds later he learned that the water was only 6 feet deep. He is 6 feet tall. He intensely hit the bottom of the gravel filled river.
On impact, one of his bones was violently shoved into his spinal cord, resulting in a vertebral burst fracture. He couldn’t lift his head, let alone get his face out of the water. Struggling to breathe, he mustered up enough energy to blow several modest bubbles and stay afloat. Moments later his family rushed in to assist and pull him to safety.
“Connie, I can’t move,” he gasped while gazing into the clear blue sky.
After waiting for what felt like forever, Chatelain was finally “life flighted” to Boise, Idaho. He didn’t know just how bad it was, until he arrived at the hospital.
After countless hours of surgery doctors informed him and his family that he would live the rest of his life as a high C5 quadriplegic. That day marked the start of some of the hardest days of Chatelain’s life.
“Perceiving a loved one with a spinal cord injury is like distinguishing the same spirited person, alive and eager, confined and despondent, in an unconscious body,” Connie said in an email interview. “I mourned the loss of Jeremy’s body and all the things he did when it worked. We had to adjust and begin again.”
It took 3 ½ months of rehabilitation for him to learn how to live being paralyzed, as well as time and dedication to grasp the basic functions of daily living.
A year later, he was able to gain back some movement in his arms, allowing him to use a motorized wheelchair. It was no easy task, but Chatelain did not let his disability define him and instead confronted it head on. He said that he couldn’t have done it without his wonderful wife and family by his side.
“I would like to let the community know that what people do to help other people really does make a difference,” Connie said.
He slowly started getting back to what he loved, teaching. He started volunteer teaching at a school in Idaho and pursued a master’s degree at Idaho State University, despite not being able to take his own notes. With perseverance he finished up his master’s of education degree in 2005.
Chatelain and his wife eagerly wanted to start a family but struggled with getting pregnant. They eventually started the adoption process and two years later they finally received an answer to their prayers: a beautiful little baby girl. She had piercing brown eyes with a head of softly tufted brown hair. They chose the name Sarah, after Abraham’s wife in the Bible.
“Sarah gave us something else to think about,” Chatelain said.
When Sarah was about 2, the family found out that their precious daughter had been diagnosed with leukemia. The family endured a 3 ½ year emotional and physical struggle, driving from Idaho to Salt Lake City’s Primary Children’s Hospital for chemotherapy treatments.
The family reports that Sarah has been in remission for six years.
Shortly after graduating in 2005, Chatelain and his wife moved back to Utah, where they are both originally from, to be close to family. While in Utah they tried to adopt a second child. Finally, after seven years of a grueling adoption process that consisted of paperwork, home study and required classes, they finally became proud parents to a second child, a baby boy, Dallin.
Chatelain never lost sight of his goals and over the next couple of years he taught at several high schools in the Weber County area as a religious educator for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Today, you can find him teaching seminary at Fremont High School. He also travels around as a motivational speaker.
Not only is he teaching, he is also pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Utah with an expected graduation of 2015. His research focus is First Amendment implications in LDS Church history from 1829-1844. Chatelain is proof that overcoming adversity is possible.
“I would like to compare adjusting to a life event like this to running a marathon,” Connie said. “Starting out, you think you can imagine what it will take, you begin to train and teach yourself how to handle the long distance, but you know you haven’t truly completed the course until you reach and proceed across the finish line. It takes determination to convince ourselves to move forward and thrive through Jeremy’s injury. I must say that it has been rewarding to bring ourselves to increase, even though most every day has been difficult. We still have a long way to go, but we’ve sure come a long way.”