Doris Quigley is making great strides in her recovery since breaking her neck in the ocean surf in Amagansett in late August.
In an interview from her hospital bed in New York City on Sunday, Doris said she is able to walk with the help of a walker and mainly the force of her right leg — a feat that didn't seem possible after the accident. Paralysis was a realistic fear for the 17-year-old East Hampton High School senior.
Her mother, East Hampton Town Deputy Supervisor Theresa Quigley, has been staying with her youngest daughter, commuting back for town board meetings as much as possible.
"They fitted me for a full-length cast for my leg because my left leg really isn't working yet," said Doris, who is receiving treatment at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, one of the leading facilities in the country. The cast will help her leg not to buckle and her ankle not to turn out. "It makes it a lot easier," she said.
Doris explained that she has feeling in her left leg, but no motor function. "Motor and sensory in the spinal cord are completely disconnected," she said. "I have no idea if I'm going to get back motor."
However, she got a long-awaited sign. "I did wiggle my left pinky toe last weekend. It was good because it was different," she said.
It has been more than six weeks since Doris was injured while diving into the ocean with friends at the end of her shift as a lifeguard at Atlantic Avenue Beach. Thanks to quick-thinking fellow lifeguards and swimmers, she was removed from the water swiftly.
She was airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital, where she underwent a long surgery to repair the break in her C6 vertebrae. She made some progress, moving the toes on her right feet, but she also suffered some complications.
Two weeks later, she was transferred to Rusk. She said doctors expect her to be there another one to two months before she can come home and then do additional physical therapy for up to one year.
Doctors have given electrical stimulation to help to get her muscles working again. The hope is, she said, that "my brain will register that there are muscles working there."
Understandably, the injury has been overwhelming, but Doris' family said she has remained strong and hopeful even in the darkest of times.
The hardest part, she said, is uncertainty. "I just think it's not knowing. You never really know. In a complete injury, you get 5 percent of functioning back in the area below the injury. Since it was in an incomplete injury, the chances are much higher — There's no guarantee I can get 100 percent back."
She has had to think about her life in ways most ways teenagers don't. She said she has had to consider life in a wheelchair or using a walker. She calls it an "eye opening" experience. She's also realized some things are just can't be explained.
"There's no reason why this happened. I can't blame it on anything," she said.
"It's also humbling. Now I'm in this rehab place and there's so many people with problems so much worse than I have. Sometimes I feel like my injuries aren't as bad as them," she said. Then there are days, like Sunday, when her mother took her out in the neighborhood where she said it hits her: "I really am a disabled person."
"Right now, my life has stopped and I have to focus on getting better," she said. Her teachers, whom she said have been extremely supportive, have been sending her assignments. She was told to read the Canterbury Tales and The Metamorphosis at her own pace and they'll discuss it when she returns to the classroom.
She's planning on taking the SATs on Nov. 3, possibly at the hospital with extended time and a scribe.
Turning her attention to schoolwork isn't easy. "I can write, but it's difficult. It's like every task is a little bit more difficult — opening the book, turning the pages," she said. She's also in therapy until the late afternoon and then she's busy with nurses and visitors. "It's hard to get anything done," she said with a laugh.
She's in awe of the outpouring of support from the East Hampton community, which not only sent her well-wishes and prayers, but also came together to raise more than $30,000 in her name last month.
"I'm really, really grateful," she said. "It's kind of shocking how much support I've gotten, how many people have visited."
Still, she's eager to get back to school and "just to be doing normal things."
Last year during this time, she was studying abroad in France, where she spent five months. She missed being photographed for the yearbook because she was away, and she missed senior portraits this year already.
The small things are what she said she misses the most, such as her sheets and her pillow at home. "If I could sleep in my own bed, and be in this hospital, I'd be 20 times happier," she said.
Then there are her pets — two dogs and three cats, though she said she's looking forward to seeing her cats more.
Asked what she hopes for herself, she said: "To be completely as I was before— it's not the most realistic goal." However, she said, "I'm not aspiring to be in a wheelchair or to be in a walker. I'm aspiring to be completely normal, as normal as I know myself."
"I would love to swim again, I'd love to run, all that stuff, but I don't really care as long as I can walk."