Emily Obert ’11 fell on a clear warm day almost exactly like today. The kind of day when, in her faint Virginia twang, she might order you to stop sitting around and go outside.
So they did. Emily and the Burton Third Bombers, that merry band of orange pranksters, held a barbecue at a friend’s house in Cambridgeport on Sept. 4, 2010. It was the Saturday before classes started, and the freshmen were still reeling from floor rush. Some were still incredulous at their fortune, to have been taken in by this rollicking, rag-tag family — a family held together, in large part, by Emily.
She is the one who gets the party started, the one who is not afraid to bust out dancing when everyone else is too shy or self-conscious. The one whose grin is too big for her face. But she is also the one that people turn to when there’s trouble, the one who can exert a calming force on rowdy freshmen. The one that the Burton Conner housemasters trust.
To get to the apartment, which was on the second story, you climbed a set of gray wooden stairs. Floor chair Rishi Dixit ’11 remembers these stairs because he walked into them that afternoon and smacked his head. Emily had guffawed at this.
The stairs led to a balcony that overlooked the lawn where, that afternoon, the Bombers were grilling hamburgers, sausages, hot dogs, veggie burgers — and, of course, bacon. (It’s a Bomber thing.) They had finished most of the grilling and now some were lounging upstairs, watching TV. Dixit was there. His girlfriend, Alexandra Hall, was sitting on a couch telling a freshman that he shouldn’t leave for a fraternity, since the Bombers were far superior.
Hall remembers Emily walking through, maybe 20 minutes before the fall. Emily touched her on her head and then gave her a warm hug.
When the balcony collapsed and Emily fell, there were no screams, no lurid sound effects. To hear some people describe it, there was no sound at all. Someone had hit the mute button on the world.
There was just Emily — lying there facedown in the mulch on that very sunny, Goldilocks day, as the smoky smell of sausages and hamburgers continued to waft from the grill.
There she was, her hips and long legs slung to the right at that odd angle, as if her torso were made of rubber.
There she was, bits of dirt and twig still sticking to her face, her eyes open and fully awake.
There she was, drawing a circle of friends and friends-to-be who waited for her spring back into place, to laugh and reassure them with that charm of hers that came so naturally.
But something had snapped. She couldn’t feel her feet. She couldn’t feel her legs. She tried to untangle herself. She couldn’t.
And then she did a very un-Emily-like thing. In a near-whisper, she began to repeat:
“I don’t want to be paralyzed. I don’t want to be paralyzed.”
She said it five, maybe six times, in a small but steady voice that only the people kneeling next to her could hear.
In the five minutes it took for the ambulance to arrive, friends stroked her sandy brown hair and murmured comforting words. It’s going to be alright, you’re going to be fine.
Yes, she finally decided. She would be.
It was a miserable, rainy day when Cathy Poff got the call.
Poff grew up in Willis, V.A., and you can hear traces of her gentle accent in her daughter’s voice, especially in the way that both linger melodically on words like “while” and “well.” In Physics class one day at the University of Virginia, Poff told herself that she would sit next to the cutest boy in the lecture hall. That was how she met Jim Obert. They became lab partners, then college sweethearts. Now they were celebrating their 25th anniversary at Niagara Falls.
They had driven the seven hours from their home in Baltimore, where Poff is a physical therapist and Obert is an insurance underwriter. Earlier that afternoon they stopped on the American side to take pictures. But when they got on the Rainbow Bridge to the Canadian side, the rain was drenching everything and no cars were moving.
Poff’s phone rang first — but it was buried somewhere in the backseat and she was driving. Too much of a hassle. Then Obert’s cell phone rang. After fumbling for a while, he missed the call too. By the time Poff’s phone rang a second time, she knew this something was important. She told Obert to reach back and get her phone this time.
It was an emergency room physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Emily had fallen and injured her spine, but her injuries were not life-threatening. The ER team was doing the workup, and could tell them more soon.
Poff told the physician they were stuck in traffic in a downpour, and that they would call back as soon as they cleared the bridge and had a chance to pull over. This took 45 minutes because of the gridlock. Confined to the car, Poff wanted to run, to escape, to scream.
When they finally called back, the physician told them flat out: Emily would be a paraplegic.
Poff felt her mind running in place, retracing the same frantic thoughts. How could this have happened? It couldn’t have happened, it felt so unreal. Yet just moments ago a physician had told them these terrible things like they were facts. But how could something like this happen to Emily — and what would her life be like now? Would it be bearable?
Most of all, Poff wondered if this accident would dim the spirits of her sweet, kind, open, generous, dedicated, determined daughter. Would Emily be the same Emily?
Once when she was about eight years old, Emily told her mother: “You know how in the world there are two kinds of people — problem getters, and problem solvers?”
“I was sent here to be a problem solver,” the eight-year-old Emily said.
Hundreds of miles away, Dixit was wondering the same thing. What would happen to the Emily they all loved? The Emily who adored sports and being outside, who was 5’10” and played opposite hitter on the women’s volleyball team? The Emily who loved product design so much that she never missed an opportunity to work in industry over the summer?
What would happen to that natural engineer, who saw solutions everywhere, not problems?
The human backbone has a natural “S” shape to it. From the base of the neck to the middle of the back, the vertebra curve out away from the body — this is the top of the “S,” the thoracic section.
Emily landed feet-first, her body crumpling under her. In addition to breaking three ribs on her right side, she shattered vertebra in middle of the thoracic region, just underneath where the shoulderblades are. This was where her spinal cord had been severed. Below this region, she has no feeling.
Her parents landed at Logan at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday morning. The two had considered driving to Boston, but Poff was certain that in their grief-stricken states, they would almost certainly crash. So they left their car behind in Toronto, and took the earliest flight to Boston.
The hospital put them up in a tiny windowless room with cots. But they couldn’t sleep anyway. They were consumed with worry.
“People kept saying, ‘I hope you’re taking care of yourself,’” Poff said. “I just wanted to scream. It’s like, quit telling me that! I can’t think about that right now. I remember Jim and I saying how food didn’t taste like anything. It truly had no taste. At all. For at least a week or two. It was really weird.”
That day, the surgeons attached two 10-centimeter titanium bars to Emily’s fractured spine using screws and hooks. The bars stabilized her back and would cause the vertebrae to fuse together to provide stiffer support.
The most intense pain Emily had ever felt came from the breathing tube they had put down her throat for the surgery. She remembers waking up and panicking, because she heard the nurse say they might leave it in for another two hours. (They didn’t.)
“I was telling [the nurse] afterward, ‘When you said it was two more hours I didn’t know what to do because it hurt so bad!’ And [the nurse] said, ‘Oh we wouldn’t have left you conscious for that.”
The doctors also attached her to a breathing monitor that measured the rise and fall of her chest. But because of her broken ribs and broken back, her breaths were shallow. When she went into deep sleep, her breaths would become even shallower, fooling the device into thinking she had stopped breathing entirely. This would set off panicked klaxons at all hours of the night.
She let the machine wake her up a couple times before finally ripping the sensor off her chest.
“I’m breathing!” she told the machine. “Just leave me alone!”
These are the kind of slightly wacky, slightly off-beat stories that Emily likes to tell about her two weeks at Beth Israel.
But what the people around her remembered was her strength.
The Burton Conner housemasters, Professor Roe Smith and Bronwyn Mellquist, visited a couple days after the surgery.
“We walked in the room, and her mother had just been brushing her hair, and so her hair was sort of fanned out over the pillow,” Mellquist said. “She looked so angelic. And at some point I kind of just looked at her, and the enormity of it hit me. And all that happened was my voice cracked … and she looked up at me, and she says ‘It’s okay, I can still move my arms!’”
For those first weeks, the Bombers’ Graduate Resident Tutor, Charles Lin G, ferried visitors from Burton Conner three times a day. Emily’s boyfriend of two years at the time, Daniel Hernandez-Stewart ’07, was a constant companion, as was Hall.
Toward the end of her stay at Beth Israel, David Randall, an associate dean at Student Support Services, asked Emily if there was anything she would like to communicate to her floor mates, the Bombers — many of whom still did not know the details of Emily’s injury.
Emily told Randall to relay two messages. First, that she was paralyzed and that it was a permanent injury. Her floor mates shouldn’t get their hopes up for a recovery.
Second, that she was the same person she always was. She had not changed. She was still Emily.
These messages, Lin says, gave everyone on the floor a sense of hope. “It was a real turning point,” he said.
At the meeting of assembled Bombers, Dean Randall added that Emily would certainly be returning to MIT some day to finish her degree.
But nobody, except for perhaps Emily, could have guessed how just how quickly she would be back.
In mid-September, Emily moved to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, a nondescript brick building near TD Garden where she would relearn the motions of daily life.
Three days after the surgery to fuse her spine, therapists came to visit her at Beth Israel. They wanted her to put on her socks. It took her 45 minutes. As a physical therapist herself, she knew this was a big achievement, Poff said. But as a mother she couldn’t help but feel a twinge. “It was hard to stand there and see what a hard task something like that now was,” she said.
Another early task was for Emily to roll onto her side. Because she can’t use her abdominal muscles, Emily instead must rely on momentum, rocking herself up. Her physical therapist, Cara Leone Weisbach, demonstrated for me one recent afternoon.
Lying on the floor on her back, Weisbach threw her arms and shoulders violently to her right, causing her whole body to turn over.
“Is all this just to get out of bed?” I asked.
Weisbach laughed. “This is just to get onto your side.”
At the time, Emily was getting nauseous in the mornings from her medication. Weisbach said it was common for the two of them to have morning physical therapy sessions when Emily would bring along a bucket to vomit in. But she would never ask to quit. She would vomit, put the smile back on her face, and move on.
Poff rented an apartment in East Cambridge so that she could stay in the area to look after Emily. Shortly before Emily was discharged, her therapists at Spaulding arranged a home visit. They wanted to see if Emily could get from Spaulding to the apartment using the subway. Weisbach said Emily pushed herself the whole way. Not once did she complain or ask for help. “Not that I would have let her have any help,” Weisbach said.
“Oh my god,” Emily said in a low, conspiratorial voice when I asked her about the home visit. “I thought I was going to die. Or kill Cara.”
“But you didn’t complain at all,” I said.
“Yeah, probably not,” she said. She likes to drag out her words sometimes to let you know that she’s being goofy. “But I thought my arms were going to fall off. It’s like at sports practice, right? Your coach tells you you’re going to run three miles … and you’re like, ‘Oh my god why is my coach making me run so far?’ But you just do it and you try as hard as you can, and at the end you want to puke, but you just suck it up and drink water and 15 minutes later, you’re fine.”
Emily spent about six weeks at Spaulding before she was discharged in early November — though she still has to attend physical therapy twice a week as an outpatient. She moved in with her mother. Life began to return to a rhythm. She started to make plans.
She decided, first, that she would finish out her last semester and graduate. She also decided to apply to the Mechanical Engineering Master’s program at MIT. And of course she would return to her other family, her beloved Burton Third.
MIT had flat out rejected her request at first, since Burton Conner is an old dorm that wasn’t built with wheelchair accessibility in mind. Instead, Emily was told to consider Baker, or Senior House. It tooks months of negotiating. Emily sent emails to the floor asking for their help. People gave up rooms and shuffled around so that she could have a place to move back to. She asked Weisbach to write a recommendation. Finally Emily was allowed to move back among her friends, as long as she signed a waiver.
“It was a trauma I wish she hadn’t have had to go through,” Poff said. “And a fight that I wish she hadn’t have had to wage, but she did. She’s always been a person who knows herself, who can figure out what she would like to achieve, and figure out a way to get there.”
Emily moved back to Burton Third a couple days after the spring semester began. She had a full course load, and a thesis to write. She still had physical therapy at Spaulding twice a week.
On top of all of that, just the simple every day things like going to the bathroom took longer. Because she cannot control her bladder, she needs to use a catheter to empty it, which takes about half an hour. “If you ask normal people how many hours do you spend a day peeing — not pooping, just peeing — I don’t think most people would add that up in hours,” she said.
“You can get super awkward and embarrassed over it, but it’s not anything I have control over,” she shrugs. “So I got over that pretty quick.”
“I mean, sure, there are days you’re crying because you’re so tired and you’re spending all your time just getting up and getting dressed and eating,” she said. “You just take one step at a time. I can never stay upset for a long time anyway. You get upset, cry about it, and get over it. You have stuff to do.”
The accident has taught her to cherish her relationships and the people close to her. “There’s a lot of other facets to your life than physical health,” she said. “And even though the demands on my time for physical well-being are much, much greater, at some point, you know, it’s like, ‘I think I’m going to hang out with my friends, and screw [physical therapy] on Tuesday.’”
At the end of April, the Bomber held their largest annual party, Dance ’Til You Drop. Emily was back to her usual groove, popping wheelies, throwing her hands up in the air, getting bystanders to stop standing and start dancing any way she can.
“I don’t even know how she manages not to throw herself out of her chair, to be honest,” Hall says.
“It’s a good thing she has a seatbelt,” Dixit adds.
“Yeah, or she would be everywhere.”
Emily told me her favorite part was showing people how to really dance.
“I feel like even though I’m paralyzed pretty far above my waist — I still move around more than half of MIT students. They just move their hips left, right, left right, and it’s just like, ‘No, come on!’ It was so easy to get people to dance with me, and people were all smiling. It was super super fun.”
By now, you should not be surprised to learn that Emily is graduating today, on time, with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. You should also not be surprised that she’s been accepted to MIT’s master’s program, and has won a fellowship. (They haven’t told her the name of it yet.) You should also not be surprised that she has a new boyfriend; that she’s learning to drive this summer; that she will be living by herself next year.
It’s all as natural as the grin on her face.