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Life-changing event turns alum into disability activist

September 01, 2011

Editor's Note: This story was originally featured on the website of the Will2Walk Foundation, a Phoenix-based national organization that brings awareness of spinal cord injuries and improvements to the lives of the injured.

ASU alumna Gina Campbell was injured in a diving accident, just before her 18th birthday, on Oct. 11, 2003. She suffered a break at the C5/C6 level, leaving her in a wheelchair and with limited use of her hands. Since then, she has continued to pursue her goals with the same gusto as before the injury.

Facing injury at age 18

Just days before her 18th birthday, Campbell left her home and place of birth in Chowchilla, Calif. to pursue her cooking passion and receive culinary training in Tucson, Ariz. There, she began to work in a restaurant and quickly began to make waves. After only working there a short while she influenced the menu, integrating her own personal flair into the restaurant’s offerings.

On Oct. 11, 2003, Campbell was invited to hang out with some co-workers after work. A miscommunication about the depth of the pool led her to dive into the shallow end. After diving into the pool Campbell instantly felt her neck break.

“I knew what had happened. It was so serene, as I laid at the bottom of the pool, I was thinking, okay, I’m going to die," Campbell says.

She was pulled from the pool by onlookers and rushed by ambulance to Tuscon’s University Hospital. Eventually, she was transferred to another hospital in Santa Clara, Calif. to be closer to her family.

Keeping her spirits high during treatment and recovery

Throughout her entire injury and recovery – and despite numerous setbacks including three separate surgeries to fuse her neck – Campbell never lost her spirit. A few months after her injury and after several surgeries, Campbell was thin, bruised, and forced to wear a halo brace. Not to be defeated, however, she decorated her halo with flowers.

Initially, Campbell dealt with many dismissive physicians.

“Doctors would come tell my mom ‘she’ll never walk again and never be normal,’” Campbell says.

On one instance, later in her treatment, a doctor asked her if she sat around all day. She responded, “I wish I had time for that!”

Campbell was lucky to have the support and love of her family throughout her recovery. 

On one instance, “my aunt was being really solemn when they first came to see me and asked ‘Gina, how do you feel?’ I responded with ‘I don’t!’” Campbell says.

Today, after numerous surgeries and physical therapy, Campbell is paralyzed from the chest down, has paralyzed triceps, and has limited use of her hands.

Education in Arizona

Campbell would not let her injury affect her chances of getting a good education.

After several physicians told her she would not be able to handle a few, if any, courses, Campbell enrolled in Gilbert Community College. She started full time at GCC, and after two years, enrolled full time at Arizona State University.
Campbell graduated from ASU in the spring of 2011 with a degree in political science.

She is now enrolled in law school full time. She plans to become a lawyer and advocate for disability issues on state and national levels.

Activism and handicapped parking

Campbell chose political science as her major because it directly influences another one of her passions: political disability advocacy. She has been involved with numerous issues that affect those with disabilities, the largest one being handicapped parking laws.

Campbell recounts how she became involved in this arena:

Being an active person, Campbell has equipped her car with the tools that allow her to drive. She is, however, dependent upon handicapped parking, as only handicapped parking spaces have the room necessary for her to exit her vehicle.

One day, someone parked in the hash-marked part of a disabled parking spot she was occupying, which was illegal.
Unable to access her vehicle and stuck in 100 degree weather, she began thinking that something needed to be done.

Cambpell has addressed cities across the Phoenix metro area. She spoke in front of the Gilbert City Council and multiple police chiefs to discuss handicapped parking. In the city of Gilbert, she successfully campaigned to tighten enforcement of handicapped parking rules.

“These issues aren’t just important to me, they affect all truly handicapped people, ” Campbell says.

“Food’s my passion”

Campbell continues to develop her cooking skills with the same drive as before her injury. She maintains a cooking blog, The Culinary Quad, where she showcases her latest creations.

Although her injury leaves her unable to prepare most food components herself, Campbell enlists the help of her husband, Lewis, and her caregivers to assist in cooking what she cannot do herself. This teamwork yields palette-pleasing food that never fail to please the palate.

Maintaining a social life and “high standards”

Campbell decided long ago not to let her injury change her outlook on dating.

“I’m not lowering my standards just because I’m sitting!” Campbell says.

Not long after her injury, in 2004, Campbell met her future husband Lewis. The two were wed on April 17, 2009.