Author, human rights activist, paralympian: Tiana Tozer has played many roles in her life. The one role she refuses to play is victim.
Tozer spoke at Juneau Rotary’s Pillars of America series Wednesday at Centennial Hall. Severely injured by a drunk driver at 20 years old, Tozer lost the use of her right leg from the knee down. Through countless surgeries she has learned to walk unassisted and has never allowed her disability to slow her down.
Tozer focused on two themes when speaking to the more than 200 youth attending Wednesday’s program: your appearance doesn’t define you, and sometimes the choices you make last forever.
She opened her speech by talking about how people treat you differently when you have a disability.
“I was in a restaurant once and I stood up from my wheelchair to put my trenchcoat on,” Tozer started. “A woman then stood up in the back of the restaurant and said, ‘I was feeling sorry for you before you stood up.’ And I said to her, ‘Why would you ever feel sorry for a stranger in a wheelchair?’ Maybe I’m not deserving of your pity, maybe I’m a mean, evil and nasty person. Yet she wants to pity me. Any time we judge somebody based on one thing, whether it’s a physical characteristic, or a chance encounter, invariably we’re going to be wrong.”
Tozer boils her life down to two important choices — the choice an alcoholic made to get behind the wheel on May 14, 1988, and the choice she made to chase her dreams despite not knowing if she’d ever walk again.
As a rugby-playing sophomore at the University of Oregon, a drunk driver ran a stop sign and T-boned the vehicle she was riding in, throwing her into the intersection. A 3,000 pound vehicle then ran over her lower body.
“All of a sudden there’s a flash, and I am out on the ground,” Tozer said. “I am thinking, ‘Where am I? Am I on the rugby field? Who just tackled me and why can’t I get up?’ … The last thing I remember on May 14, 1988, was being taken to this big, white room and hearing this woman screaming, ‘Please put me to sleep, don’t make me stay awake for this.’ Right when I lost consciousness I realized it was me who was screaming.”
Tozer spent a month in critical condition in the hospital undergoing near-daily surgery. Doctors never expected her live, much less walk again, and almost needed to amputate her right leg below the knee.
“What happened was it broke my left hip and everything below my left hip,” she explained to the audience. “But it had crushed my lower right leg. … It (the vehicle) had severed my right artery, so the muscles that were in there were dying.”
“I realized that everything I had planned for my life is now in pieces around me as broken as my body,” Tozer realized. “Whether or not I walk again is questionable, and whether or not I leave the hospital is also questionable. I am 20 years old, and I don’t want to live anymore.”
Her single mother was supportive, and wouldn’t allow Tozer to lower any of her expectations. Tozer credits her mother’s tough love with helping her move on with her life.
After leaving the hospital, Tozer’s mother asked her, “What are you going to do with the rest of your summer?”
“Recover?” Tozer replied.
“Well, that’s great but I don’t want you sitting around the house all summer. It’s an election season, so I think you should volunteer for a campaign,” her mother said.
After weeks of driving Tozer to physical therapy and the election office, Tozer’s mother said she couldn’t take off work each day any more and that Tozer should learn how to ride the bus.
“This really terrible thing happened to me, and my mother still had expectations,” Tozer recalled. “She expected me to go on and live my life to the best of my ability. When we have expectations of people, the tendency is for them to rise to those expectations. I know a lot of people think my mother’s mean, but that’s called tough love, and I know my mother loves me. If it hadn’t been for her, I don’t know if I’d be standing here today.”
Tozer went on to win five wheelchair national championships and four international medals.
She left the young crowd with a message that she hoped will resonate with them the rest of their lives.
“Attitude and belief are powerful things. Only you get to decide if you’re going to place limitations on your own life. Don’t let anyone else tell you what you can and cannot do. I won’t ever tell you what you can’t do, however, I do expect one thing of you: Whatever the choices you make, live and deal with the consequences.”
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