A Marion woman's life drastically changed 18 years ago when she critically injured her spine after a vehicle she was in slammed into a fire hydrant, then a telephone pole, and then a tree. As devastating as the accident was, she miraculously survived. Although the driver was not at all injured, she as the passenger broke two thoracic vertebrae and lost the ability to walk.

Nicole Antil, now 37 years old, is wheelchair-bound and living her life much differently than she did when she was only a teenager. These days, she's living independently on her own and getting ready for her next journey in life down in Kentucky where she was selected for a special spinal study called epidural stimulation.

The Crash, the Diagnosis and the Start of a Difficult Journey

First, let me take you on Antil's difficult journey on how she had to readjust life to accommodate her current situation. Her cousin Stephanie Vigeant remembers the unfortunate events as if they were yesterday.

"I was 18 when I got a call that my cousin Nicole was involved in a major car accident when she was only 19 at the time," Vigeant said. "My first vision I had of her when I saw her in a Boston hospital was the metal halo screws that were surgically placed into her head. There were get-well poster boards all around her. These images will forever be burned into my head."

Photo Courtesy of Nicole Antil

At first, the doctors told Antil that she was going to be a quadriplegic, but she eventually regained feeling in her arms, adjusting her medical evaluation to paraplegic. When asked if she wanted a manual over an electronic wheelchair, Antil chose a manual chair to gain some form of strength.

Depressed and discouraged, Antil refused to leave her house for an entire year, but finally found the motivation to get out and about when she heard about a new rehab program at the Shepard Center in Atlanta.

"Nikki went there for quite a few years for spinal rehab therapy," Vigeant said. "It was here where she got a little bit of 'Nikki' back, surrounded by other spinal cord patients for motivation. This brought her to get back to things a normal 20-something would do such as going out to dinner, concerts, etc."

Photo Courtesy of Nicole Antil

Learning to Independently and Never Giving Up Hope

Antil eventually moved back to Massachusetts and currently lives alone and independent, still in a wheelchair, along with her dog, 18 years post-accident. She now drives, which is a huge improvement for her, with a wheelchair-accessible van that cost her $30,000 with $40,000 in custom accommodations. 

She is currently packing up her apartment and getting ready to take off again on May 3 for Kentucky for the next two years. Antil will be getting a spinal stimulator in her back to try and get her on her feet again.

"She was on a list for the Christopher Reeve Foundation and the study came across her name through the list and through blood test and qualifications, she was chosen through the spinal study for epidural stimulation," Vigeant said. "The researcher for this program is Dr. Susan Harkema at the Frasier Rehab Institute in Kentucky."

Friends and Family Fund the Next Big Step

Knowing how costly this big move was going to be for Antil and the stress that will come with it, Vigeant and Ben Picard raised upwards to $10,000 between a GoFundMe and a private Venmo fundraiser. The donations began on April 5 and have piled up since.

"When I started it, I was excited it to just raise $1,000, so when I saw that it had accumulated to over $10,000, my jaw dropped," Vigeant said.

The money raised will help with Antil's move, gas for her van to get to Kentucky and then back and forth from her apartment to the research center, and also for utilities and food. Antil still plans to work from her apartment as a content creator and graphic designer, but the extra money will help get her by and not have to worry about her pay.

"I was pleasantly surprised," Antil said after finding out how much money was actually raised. "It’s definitely something I was not expecting. I don’t think there's anything I can actually say to express how grateful I am. The best way I can truly say thank you is to give it my all at the research facility and to work hard every day that I'm there."

Throughout Antil's life since the accident occurred, emotions have been running wild. One of the biggest things she had to learn was patience.

"Life doesn’t always go smoothly, it doesn’t always go the way you want and when it comes to this new program I signed up for, I’m terrified, but excited at the same time," Antil said.

An Opportunity That Seemed Destined to Happen

"It’s so weird how it all unfolded," she said. "Back in 2009, when I heard about the therapy program on the news, I immediately went onto the website for the research center and put my information into the database. Last year I got a phone call out of the blue asking if I wanted to participate, so I jumped right on the opportunity."

Unfortunately for Antil, the COVID-19 pandemic paused everything, but only temporarily.

"I got a call back not too long ago for the evaluation and was accepted," Antil said. "From that moment on, I’ve been preparing for the big move. I know that they’re going to be putting an implant on my spinal cord and some intense therapy. I'm trying not to think too far ahead and just putting it in my doctor’s hands and hoping for the best. It’s one of those things you don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know that no matter what happens I’m going to benefit from it, even if it’s the littlest improvement."

Family is everything for the Antil family and her support system is as strong as can be.

"We are a big family, but we are a close family so anyone who knows me knows that Nikki and I are like sisters," Vigeant said. "My dad and her mom are super close, so when this happened to her, this happened to the entire family."

Ready to Face the Challenge of What's Next

The days leading up to the big move are passing quickly, and as Antil prepares herself for one of the biggest life changes she'll ever face, her courage and strength, both physically and mentally, are admirable beyond words. As scary as it is to pick up your life and relocate, the potential outcome makes it all worth it.

Antil is not only brave for embarking on a whole new expedition for herself, but an inspiration to many who are also wheelchair-bound with the hope of someday being able to walk once again.

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