Thursday, September 27, 2001

Ann Yoshida uses a specially modified car to get around,
driving with her left hand holding a push-pull handle that
controls speed and the brakes. There also is a "spinning"
knob on the steering wheel to help turn the car.

on the road again

Ann Yoshida overcame her
paralysis and is driving around
in her own car

By Helen Altonn

Learning to drive with only her hands has set Ann Yoshida, 23, on the road to independence.

She has been paralyzed from the waist down since a car in which she was riding was struck by a truck running a red light Feb. 10, 2000, in Utah.

Yoshida, then a senior at Brigham Young University in Provo, had just left work as a phototechnician in nearby Orem and was wearing a seat belt but unbuckled it at an intersection to reach for something in the back seat.

Her side of the car was hit. "They were like new immigrants, a lady and daughter, in a big Ford steel truck, and we were in a little Nissan Sentra. They had no insurance and didn't own anything, not even the car."

Yoshida, the only one injured, said, "My aorta ruptured. The car was mangled. I went through the dashboard and the glass cracked."

She was hospitalized five months and sedated for about two months because when she tried to wake up, "my heart would get crazy." She had tachycardia, with a heart rate of over 100 beats per minute.

She said she was "so drugged up, a lot of things for the whole year I can't really place."

Doctors feared she would have brain damage or more severe injuries because her aorta had to be clamped for so long during surgery, cutting off blood flow to the spinal cord.

"I had higher injuries when I woke up but by the time I left, I had greatly improved," she said. Her left arm is weaker, with limited range of motion, but it was paralyzed initially.

Her parents, Nina and Ronald Yoshida of Mililani, and two brothers, from Kahuku and Florida, flew to Utah to be with her.

Driving rehab specialist Sandra Wataoka and Raymond
Harada shared a light moment as he tried the "elemental
driving simulator" at the Rehabilitation Hospital
of the Pacific.

When her family brought her home, she underwent therapy at the Central Oahu Sports and Rehabilitation Center in Wahiawa, then began doing volunteer work there.

With help from the Hawaii Centers for Independent Living, she took a driving training program for paraplegics and other disabled people at the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific. "Within a month, I was driving," Yoshida said, saying she learned "about perception and things I took for granted before." She worked most on cognition and reaction times, she said.

"I may be a little bit more safer because I'm more aware of my surroundings and my body." She's particularly careful at intersections and avoids getting into blind spots when passing.

She bought an older car with wide doors. "There are still things to work on," she said. "I need a smaller wheelchair (to collapse and put in the car). This one is so clunky."

Yoshida, who was a human biology major, is interested now in psychology or the rehabilitation field. "I know my hands, even my wheelchair, can help others," she said.

When she first got home, her parents had to carry her, she said. The house had no ramps and doors weren't wide enough for her wheelchair. Friends helped her dad build ramps and make other household changes, she said.

"There were so many hands in my recovery. I wouldn't be where I am without my family and friends." They and the doctors helped her believe, "Yeah, I'm in a wheelchair, but I'm not paralyzed in my head."

She enrolled at the University of Hawaii with financial help from the state Vocational Rehabilitation Division, starting with one class to see how it would be driving from Mililani. She's taking photography, her hobby.

She's still going through physical changes, and "won't ever be where I was before, but I will have some sense of normalcy," she said. "I can drive myself to classes and doctor appointments ... and meet challenges in a wheelchair."

She practices jumping curbs with the wheelchair, trying to get higher, and wheels around shopping centers to get her heartbeat up and stay in shape. "There are things I can't do, but I can do parts of it," she said.

Although she can no longer surf, she floats, swims and paddles around on her longboard. "It makes you feel like you can do things. It gives you a lot of esteem." She also swims at the Mililani Rec Center, where she used to be a lifeguard.

Yoshida was a gymnast for 12 years in Hawaii, and was active in Latin dancing, biking, skiing and snowboarding in Utah.

She just got new skis before her accident, she said. She hopes to return to Utah and ski again, noting there is an organization that plans physical activities for paraplegics and other disabled people.

Her days are shorter because more time is needed for personal care, she said, and she is susceptible to infections. She was very ill the first few weeks of school and "has been sick more times since the accident than in 22 years before," she said.

But while recognizing her limitations, she said, "I don't even know what I can do until I try."

She plans to be active in her church and community, including being a facilitator or guest speaker for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

She said she loves to cook and "one day I want to get my own place," just as she had before the accident. "I don't see why it cannot be."

Program teaches disabled
different driving methods

Looking at some disabled people, you'd think there would be no way they could drive, "but there are so many possibilities," said Sandra Wataoka, an occupational therapist with a specialty in driving.

"A lot of people who need much more help with many other things can actually drive because of the equipment out there," she said.

Wataoka conducts the driver training program, among others, at the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific. She had 35 to 40 clients last year and the numbers are increasing, with a two- to four-week wait for an appointment, she said.

The one-on-one program involves several two-hour sessions, depending on the equipment involved and level of disability.

A complete physical evaluation is done and trainees are tested with a simulated driving program for impairments and cognitive reaction.

They begin driving in the hospital's modified vehicle. She takes them to a big park and "puts them in various types of driving situations" before going onto the highway.

She advises them on hand-controlled brake and gas pedals, steering devices and other equipment and makes sure they work for their vehicle.

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