Survivor teaches tenacity, is paid in laughter

October 17, 1990|By Michael J. Clark | Michael J. Clark,Howard County Bureau of The Sun

Paula Silverstein says she sometimes arrives exhausted at her teaching job at Deep Run Elementary School in Howard County, because it takes her two hours to get dressed and her arms are weary from driving her specially equipped van for the 50-minute trip.

But there is nothing in her smiling countenance to give the children or her fellow teachers a hint of the agonizing struggle tTC she has endured during her return to teaching after two years of strenuous physical therapy.

Ms. Silverstein's life changed July 20, 1988, when a windstorm sent a tree crashing onto the roof of her car as she was driving home from a golf tournament. The accident left her paralyzed from the chest down with a broken neck and injured spinal cord.

She has retained some movement in her arms, although she needs a special brace to write.

"Everybody who is healthy thinks this will not happen to them," said the blond, 40-year-old woman, who gets around in a battery-powered wheelchair. "You keep asking why, but never find an answer. I guess it may be that God thinks I can handle this. I am not happy about it, but I am trying."

But the 12-year teaching veteran, who is back in the classroom four days a week, has "resolved to be a vital member of the faculty," said James A. Pope, principal of Deep Run Elementary. "She is an excellent teacher and does not want to be a token."

Ms. Silverstein teaches in a new school near Columbia that is equipped with automatic doors, and she will soon have a computer to prepare her daily lesson plans for students who need help with reading.

"I love being with the children, who give you what I call warm fuzzies and make you laugh and giggle," said Ms. Silverstein.

"A couple have asked about what happened to me, and I say I was in a car accident because I don't want them to be afraid of trees," she said. "I use the analogy of a lamp in explaining my condition. I say the cord has been cut, and the light does not turn on any more. Children understand that."

Michael E. Hickey, the county's superintendent of schools, has taken a personal interest in Ms. Silverstein's desire to return to the classroom. Along with Personnel Director Reva Bryant, he encouraged Ms. Silverstein to return to work. She was employed part time in the school system's public information office for 14 months before she took on teaching duties.

Her stint in the public information office convinced her boss, Patti Vierkant, that she was a woman of "courage and tenacity."

"A lot of us would have given up long before this," Ms. Vierkant said. "She has gone way beyond what people had expected of her."

"I felt I really missed the children," said Ms. Silverstein, who had been a golf, tennis and swimming enthusiast before her accident. "The staff here is very empathetic and caring, getting my lunch, helping me with my coat or fetching materials I may have dropped and putting up the bulletin board."

Shortly after the accident, during the month she was at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, Ms. Silverstein had no movement in her hands. She was given therapy for four months at the Montebello Center and continues to go once a week.

"It is lucky that I didn't see the final picture when I was going through the intensive therapy because the final picture is so bleak," Ms. Silverstein said.

She and her husband, Larry, a certified public accountant who works in Columbia, live with their two children, aged 8 and 10, in a two-story house in the Baltimore County community of Owings Mills.

"Mentally, my children are doing fine," said Ms. Silverstein. "They know my limitations, and we have a nanny who helps with the cooking and children."

But, what proved hard for Ms. Silverstein was overcoming the fear the crippling injury imposed.

"It was scary at first, and everything I did, I cried," she said. "I had been a devil-may-care person, but I was afraid that I would be stuck in a place and need help and be embarrassed to ask for it."

There also is the $80,000 debt from the costs of therapy and alterations to the family home to make it accessible by wheelchair.

"We are just going to keep plugging away at it," she said of the debt, which piled up because her health care insurance did not provide catastrophic coverage.

Help came from parents at Lisbon Elementary, where she had taught for four years. They raised $13,000 for Ms. Silverstein, who used the money to buy her motorized wheelchair and a standing table, which she uses one hour every night so the muscles in her legs don't atrophy.

"It's very difficult to live day by day," said Ms. Silverstein.

Her van, which comes with a lift and hand controls, is mauve and cream, and it bears the license plate "4 Paula."

"The van gets me to the parking lot, but I can't get in most buildings unless there are ramps," she said. "There are times when I drive my children to events, and I cannot go into the buildings with them like the other parents, and I sit in the van crying."

"But, it only took me two years to get back to teaching, and there were times I never thought I would ever return," she said. "I really missed the children."

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