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From tragedy to triumph Special To The Star-news | Sat, Oct 12 2013 12:00 PM

With only the mechanical buzz of the ventilator to interrupt her thoughts, Margarita “Maggie” Elizondo lay motionless in the ICU — her head immobilized by a traction device, her body immobilized by paralysis.

In the silence of the room, Elizondo contemplated her bleak future — her doctors’ words echoing in her head: unlikely to ever breathe on her own again, talk again, walk again.

As she fixated on the breathing tube that rose solemnly up and down on her chest, she thought about her three children and who would care for them from now on.

As Elizondo tells her story, a shadow crosses her face briefly before her eyes light up and she laughs off the painful memories. It has been seven long years since the night a bullet pierced her spinal cord — a victim of a home invasion — and changed her life forever. Yet today, Elizondo is breathing on her own, talking and even navigating sips of hot coffee while sharing her story.

A story, she said, of redemption, not tragedy. “I wouldn’t change what happened to me in a million years,” she said.

“It gave me a focus, purpose and a faith that I would never have found otherwise.”

After spending several weeks in a hospital ICU, Elizondo was transferred to the South Bay Rehabilitation Center at Paradise Valley Hospital. During her rehabilitation at South Bay Rehab, Elizondo received help from an interdisciplinary team of nurses: physical, occupational, speech and recreational therapists; social workers, and a psychologist for support to address all of her needs and challenges.

Slowly, despite the odds and the doctors’ prognoses, she regained the ability to breathe on her own, which led to being able to speak again. Slowly, she regained some use of her arms. Today she’s in a motorized wheelchair and is able to move her shoulders and arms — and even type on a computer.

Because of her personal experience, she found her true calling — encouragement for those who suffer from disabilities and have lost hope for living — especially women. She primarily attributes her positive attitude and zest for life to a newfound faith in God.

“He helped me speak again, so I try to use that gift the best way I can by using my voice to encourage and comfort others who have gone through a tragedy.”

Her latest passion is the non-profit Ms. Wheelchair California Foundation. Named Ms. Wheelchair California 2013 in February, Elizondo serves as the spokeswoman for the organization and makes appearances throughout the state advocating for disability rights and equality.

Elizondo also is a motivational speaker in the San Diego Unified School District working with at-risk middle school and high school students, as well as with those with developmental disabilities.

Elizondo is quick to credit the doctors, nurses and therapists at South Bay Rehabilitation Center at Paradise Valley Hospital for their role in her recovery.

“I was there for four months and, during that time, we grew to be a family,” she recalled. “On my last day, everyone who had ever helped me showed up to say good bye. There was a line of people out of my room and down the hall!

They played a critical role in my regaining my abilities and I will always be grateful for their support and dedication.”

When not working and volunteering, she enjoys surfing, skiing, painting, wheelchair dancing and is pursuing certification to become a Zumba instructor.


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