Ten years after track star KATHY ORMSBY was paralyzed when she dived off a bridge here, her faith in God has helped guide her to a hope-filled future.
By Phil Richards-Indianapolis Star/News- INDIANAPOLIS (June 13, 1996)
For I know
the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you, plans to
give you hope and a future. - Jeremiah 29:11
WILMINGTON, N.C. - Ten years after the dark Indianapolis night that seemed to forever deprive her of hope and future, Kathy Ormsby has both. She is prospering. So are her patients. "I think she's probably an inspiration to everyone who walks in that door," said Jane Burchfield, directory of therapy at Wilmington Hand Rehabilitation Center, one of dozens of medical services offices that ring New Hanover Regional Medical Center in south suburban Wilmington. "In a nutshell, she's as dedicated and intelligent an employee as I've ever had," said Dr. Ken White, a partner in Wilmington Plastic Surgery Specialists, the hand center's parent company. "When a patient is injured, it seems like the end of the world. But when they come in for therapy with Kathy, there's a statement there. Everything is relative. She has the ability to reach patients, and we've given her some challenging ones. " Ormsby's intelligence, energy and professionalism enable that reach. But her statement is her wheelchair, at once unspoken and unassailable. How poignant that Ormsby, an elite, record-setting distance runner, has lost the use of her legs. And that as an occupational therapist she has devoted her life to helping arthritis sufferers and victims of industrial and automobile accidents recover or retain the use of their hands. The incident that changed Ormsby's life happened June 4, 1986. In May, at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia, she had set a National Collegiate Athletic Association record by running her first 10,000-meter race in 36 minutes, 36.2 seconds. A junior at North Carolina State University, she was the favorite in the event at the NCAA Championships that night at IU Track and Field Stadium at IUPUI. Running with the lead pack beyond the 6,500-meter mark, Ormsby ran off the track on the back stretch and across a field. She climbed a chain-link fence and ran west. Her race ended on the bank of the White River, 40 feet below the railing of the New York Street bridge. She dived. Wilmington is at the base of Cape Fear, a finger of land that juts sharply into the Atlantic Ocean, but it is tranquillity that reigns in the modestly but tastefully furnished townhouse in which Ormsby, 31, resides near the clinic. A cluster of framed certificates covers a portion of one living room wall. There are awards from North Carolina State designating her the most valuable performer for women's track in 1984 and '86. Another proclaims her place on the Atlantic Coast Conference academic/athletic honor roll for 1983-84. There is a certificate of All-America status in the 5,000 meters and her diplomas - a bachelor of science from N.C. State and a master's in occupational therapy from the University of North Carolina. Ormsby is embarrassed to find a guest studying them. She dismisses their presence as her mother's doing and diverts attention to a large, colorful world map on an adjacent wall. The map is a gift from her parents, Dale and Sallie Ormsby, who live in retirement back home in Rockingham, N.C., a 2 1/4-hour drive to the west. "When I get to feeling too bad about myself, I look at that and see how small I am in the whole scheme of things," Ormsby said in her quiet manner. "It's weird what affects you. Sometimes I see somebody running real hard down the road . . " She blinked and glanced down. "Maybe it's just a weak moment for me, but I feel it. Some people love racing. I really loved to train. I very much miss being able to go out and get a good workout and sweat. That's something that's been very hard for me. I don't sit home and cry about it, but I miss it." In fact, Ormsby doesn't often sit home. Burchfield, her supervisor at work, volunteered that "we almost have to throw her out of here at night. " Still, work isn't No. 1 in Ormsby's life. The Lord is, and just about anyone He puts in her path rates No. 2. "She's a very sensitive person, and she's very concerned about other people, and I think that's helped pull her through," said Sallie Ormsby. "Her world doesn't revolve around herself. I think that helps you, when you see that other people have problems and other people need help. But I think she was that way even before she got hurt." The truth, Kathy Ormsby's parents and friends agree, is that the incident in Indianapolis has changed the mechanics of Ormsby's life without much changing her. She has wheeled her chair as many as 5 miles. She works out with hand weights, to the extent back pain and arthritis permit her. Ormsby looks fit, her frame not far from its 5-foot-5, 108 pounds of a decade ago. Her mother said she knew her girl was going to be all right as soon as the attending physician at Wishard Memorial Hospital emerged from a preliminary examination and said she was going to live. Ormsby's father said the turning point came a little later, after 10 days at Wishard and another couple of months at Duke University Medical Center. There, surgery and rehabilitation attended to her severe spinal cord damage, punctured lung and two broken ribs, though it could do nothing to alleviate her paralysis from the waist down. Dale Ormsby brought several cars home to his daughter, but none was workable. She struggled to lift herself, then her chair into a car until he found one with a big, wide front door. "You could see the change," he said. "She felt, 'Oh, yes. I can do this. I can drive. ' I think she felt she was going to be confined to home. She kind of turned the corner." Kathy had lost the use of her legs but found her wheels. Her independence was restored. She was reconnected with life. Deliverance was effected through God's mercy and an Oldsmobile Cutlass. Often those wheels carry Ormsby to Myrtle Grove Presbyterian Church. For the past four years, she has conducted a Bible study for young adults, in partnership with Chuck Stokley, a church deacon, and his wife, Nancy. The Bible is the manual by which Ormsby strives to live her life. "She's always seeking God's guidance and direction and asking Him to show her her faults, how she can better herself," said Nancy Stokley. Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail, they are new every morning. Great is His faithfulness. - Lamentations 3:22-23 Ormsby still has the box of mail, and for the moment it rests on the floor below the map. More than 1,200 letters came from all over the world, the vast preponderance uplifting expressions of concern and encouragement. She estimates that about 300 were sent by Hoosiers. She wishes she could thank them all. Someone mailed a book that has become her favorite, next to the Bible. It's You Gotta Keep Dancin', a story of triumph written by Tim Hansel, a California mountain climber for whom pain has been a daily fact of life since a 1974 fall severely injured his back. Hansel's message: Life can still have joy. Ormsby's prescription: "Sometimes you have to choose joy." Ormsby buys the book in bulk. She gives one when she sees the need. Joy is seeing through your pain. Joy is reaching beyond your wheelchair. They say the Lord gives no one a cross greater than he or she can bear. Ormsby, of course, bears hers, and is borne by it. Where she goes, the wheelchair goes. "Many times when I jump out of the car and run in and get something and come back out, I think about Kathy and how long it takes her to do something like that," said Ormsby's mother, Sallie. "After she came home from the hospital, I decided I was going to spend a day in her wheelchair and see what it was like. I think I lasted about 30 minutes. You just feel you can't do anything, and yet she has to do everything and she accepts it real well." Like the time Kathy went shopping, and someone parked too close for her to get to her car door. She was stranded four hours. Or trying to get up the ramp from the parking lot and into her townhouse after an ice storm. Up to the curb, slide back. Up to the curb, slide back. Up to the curb, slide back. Or the time she was leaving the Stokleys' after Bible study, and a helpful, if not heedful, friend lifted the back of her wheelchair too high to get it over the threshold. Ormsby was sent sprawling onto the front porch. "I was behind her. I went, 'Hehhhhhhhh,' " said Nancy Stokley. "It was the absolute worst, most horrible thing I could ever imagine. We'd never seen her helpless before. But she handled it so well. Her worst concern was the guy who did it, how he felt." Ormsby saved the moment with a smile. "You really did want me to go," she laughed. Said Stokley, "That's Kathy." And we know that in all things God works for those who love Him, who have been called to His purpose. - Romans 8:28 One production company sent Ormsby a letter proposing a television movie of her life. Others have issued feelers. Ormsby has shunned them all. She has no interest in the spotlight. Her last extensive interview was with the Charlotte Observer, in December 1986. She agreed to speak with The Indianapolis Star only after most of a month's careful, prayerful consideration. She did it because she thought her story might help someone. She also wanted to say thanks to her parents, her brothers Dale and John and her sister, Donna. To thank her coach, Rollie Geiger, her best friend and former teammate, Patty Metzler of Niles, Ohio, and all her teammates. To thank the therapists who helped her through her agonizing rehabilitation and served as models for her career path. Ormsby stressed that, even now, there are tough moments, "struggles with anxiety and insecurity," but things continue to improve. Her parents see it. Her friends see it. "I love the movie Chariots of Fire, and my favorite line is where (Eric Liddell, a Scottish gold medalist at 400 meters in the 1924 Olympics) says, "I feel His pleasure when I run,' " she said. "That's why I ran. God gave me a gift and I wanted to glorify Him. A lot of options were eliminated by what happened, but it's also helped me to focus and maybe see what's most important. I just want to live my life the best way I can." His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse nor His delight in the legs of a man, the Lord delights in those who fear, who put their hope in His unfailing love. - Psalm 147:10-11 Relying on what she perceives as that unfailing love, her family and friends and her considerable inner strength, Kathy Ormsby has answered every challenge. What she can't answer is the most fundamental question: "Why? I still sometimes wonder why, why it had to happen to such a good person," said Metzler, Ormsby's best friend and former N.C. State teammate. "The whole team loved her." Why did the best and the brightest, the valedictorian of her high school class, a dean's list student at North Carolina State, an all-American athlete, dive over that railing that warm June night in Indianapolis? "It's been labeled a suicide (attempt). I definitely did not plan to do that," said Ormsby. "I had plans for the next day. I was going to run the 5,000 trials. I had no interest in doing myself in." Indeed, the man who found her on the riverbank, coach Geiger, later found her daily log in her hotel room. In it, Ormsby detailed her plans for the 5,000. On three occasions in previous races, Ormsby had suffered panic attacks: overwhelming, irrational fear of impending doom, racing heart rate and difficulty breathing. Each time, she lost consciousness. Not that night. She felt she was laboring, barely able to move, until she left the track, when a burst of energy carried her away. "It was like something snapped," she said. Metzler and Ormsby were the only two women recruited to the North Carolina State track program in 1983. They came from similar backgrounds, ran the same events and shared their every feeling. They were and remain inextricably bound. "Competing at that level is so intense and difficult," said Metzler. "You push yourself to great extremes and you want to maintain that, and when you don't, you become your own worst enemy. The body and the mind have to work together to make a good athlete, and when there's a break anywhere, you can have problems. "I was injured, so I was going home for the summer, but we had a picnic before she went to nationals. She talked about being scared because she had run so well at Penn Relays and then everybody expected her to win nationals. She was under a lot of pressure." Ormsby recalls only "snatches" of that evening. She feels a sense of responsibility for what happened but said she never would had done it had she been thinking rationally. Such an impulsive act was completely out of character for Ormsby, a singularly careful planner. One of her first conscious acts after the incident was to apologize to God and her family. She has rethought it all. She has had therapy, talked to psychologists, coaches, teammates, family and friends. She is convinced that what happened resulted from the unhappy confluence of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual factors with stress, pressure, heat, fatigue, delicate chemical balances altered by extremes of exertion and a misguided sense of personal responsibility. "I think if any one of those factors had been taken out, it wouldn't have happened," Ormsby said. "People say I did it because I wasn't winning the race. I won very few races. That wasn't it. It's like I was out of control. I had developed this kind of wrong attitude of what God wanted for me, and I tried to please other people. "Nobody pushed me. I don't deny I did it, but why, I don't know. I used to want to have a nice, neat little answer: This is it. I'll always wonder a little, but now I'm at peace with it. I don't want to analyze it anymore." What remained was to move on. Ormsby experienced frustration but never bitterness or denial. She picked herself up like a long-distance runner from a fall. Within three months, she was back in school. She spent a semester at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, N.C., and re-enrolled at N.C. State in January 1987. Sallie Ormsby recalls a television speech given by James Brady, the presidential aide who was paralyzed by a bullet in the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. "He said: 'It's not so much the hand you're dealt. It's how you play it,'" she recalled. "I think Kathy's played hers real well. I'm prouder of her now than I was before."
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