BLUEFIELD — Caitlyn Lewis, 21, has been paralyzed for three years after an errant bullet took her mobility, but Lewis believes God kept her alive in an ambulance on the way to a Roanoke hospital that fateful night for a reason.
“I almost died, and I remember begging God to keep me alive on the way to that hospital,” Lewis said. “Going through all of that and knowing that I am still alive today, that just means more to me than anything. If God didn’t think I could handle being in this situation, he would have taken me home that night. He did not and there is a reason. Those doctors are a big part of my life, there was a reason they were able to save my life. I just want to be able to make the best of the situation that I can.”
Lewis has done so much more than handle the cards that were dealt to her in life, she is using them as a platform for change in the disability community. She was crowned Ms. Wheelchair West Virginia 2020 on February 16th. Lewis is the first Ms. Wheelchair West Virginia since 1984.
“I had my crowning ceremony at the Chuck Mathena Center on February 16th and it was family and friends, I had my best childhood friend from N.C., she came and crowned me,” Lewis said. “Ms. Wheelchair Virginia 2020 was there. It was just really fun to get together and celebrate.”
She found the organization through a Facebook support group for women that are wheelchair users. It was there that she met Ms. Wheelchair Virginia 2019, who told her about the organization. Ms. Wheelchair America does not judge beauty. Instead, they focus on recognizing the advocacy efforts, abilities and accomplishments of women who use wheelchairs.
“She gave me the contact information and told me a little bit about it. I called them and they explained the whole nine yards to me,” Lewis said. “I was so excited and so interested in it because there are not many resources here in our community or within our state, that I am aware of, for people with disabilities. I was given this life for a reason and I feel like maybe this is why, so I can help other people with disabilities.”
Her platform focuses on improving accessibility in the fitness industry and raising awareness about the impact that fitness can have on a person’s overall health. In addition, she wants to discuss awareness, acceptance and the overall understanding of disabilities with the general public.
“It has been hard dealing with it on my own, but I met my fiancé, Randy Laxton, in 2018 and he is really into fitness and bodybuilding,” Lewis said. “He introduced me to the gym and before I had never been into fitness, but he introduced it to me and it helps me so much, dealing with pain, mental health issues.”
Lewis said she can be having the worst day and once she goes to the gym and works out, she comes out feel so good.
“Fitness is so big for people with disabilities, well it should be, but the lack of accessibility causes people to get discouraged,” Lewis said. “I personally have dealt with it, going in there and there is something I cannot do. I might try and I look crazy doing it I feel like, and I get discouraged doing it. So I really feel like if we can get people to focus on the accessibility of fitness for people with disabilities, it would help so much.”
Lewis and her fiancé, Randy, go to the gym six to seven times a week. Cardio has been a struggle for Lewis, but the two have worked together to figure out a workout routine that works for her. She does upper body workouts, she does a lot of exercise with dumbbells. She said that swimming and the handcycle machine help her accomplish her cardio goals.
“Randy is amazing,” Lewis said. “We met after my accident and he is younger than I am and he carries me, he pushes me, he helps me with my showers, getting dressed, everything that I have to do on a daily basis. He is the biggest support system I have. My family plays a big role in it too and my friends and stuff but he is awesome.”
Fitness is not just a practice in physical health for Lewis, it also helps fight her depression. Since she was released from the hospital three years ago, Lewis has never taken any medication for the pain she experiences. She said that she comes from a family of addiction, and watching the tole that medications took on her family and her community, she became determined to not let that happen to herself.
“I am not saying that I would be addicted to drugs, but coming from a family that does suffer from addiction, I did not want to take that chance,” Lewis said. “The biggest thing for me, dealing with being depressed is learning how to be mobile and do things that I could do while walking, that makes it harder to do now like pushing myself, getting on a sidewalk, transferring, using the bathroom.”
The other contributor to Lewis’ struggles are people’s reaction to her disability. She has been bullied online and in-person for using a wheelchair.
“People are so mean,” Lewis said. “I have had people telling me not to sleepwalk, that I am a waste of air, to go push myself into traffic, that I am taking up space for people that can function completely and do things. People are cruel. I have had a hard life, but my parents always taught me that you respect everybody, with disabilities or not and you do not treat anyone differently.”
After connecting with other people with disabilities, Lewis learned that she was not alone in being bullied, mostly on social media.
“Why treat someone like that, if anything you should be amazed by their story, how they are able to live their lives even after being born with something and being able to take that by the hand and make the best of that situation,” Lewis said. “Why would you make fun of someone for being able to do that?”
Lewis still experiences a lot of pain from the accident. She told stories of screaming and begging God to take that pain away in the middle of the night. However, her fitness journey does not only help with depression, but her pain.
“That has been the biggest thing with my depression. Now that I have gotten into the gym and everything, I hardly ever get depressed,” Lewis said. “This opened up so many opportunities for me, starting school, being productive, staying busy and doing something with myself and seeing how many people I influence on a daily basis.”
The reaction to Lewis’ use of a wheelchair is not all negative. She said that people approach her in the gym and tell her she is inspiring and that makes her day. When asked if she minded questions about her use of a wheelchair or motorized scooters in the grocery store, she said she enjoys sharing her story with people who are respectfully curious and she understands, as someone who spent 17 years of her life, not in a wheelchair.
“Even if you are not looking to be inspired, you are just nosey and want to know what happened, you are going to be inspired by the time I get done telling my story,” Lewis said. “That alone, being able to change people’s lives and make people look at life in a different way is what keeps me going.”
Lewis said that finding the Ms. Wheelchair America organization has changed her life, opportunities and outlook.
“This organization has opened up so many doors for me,” Lewis said. “I am in school at New River Community College and I am going to be a social worker.”
Lewis’ inspiration to become a social worker came from her own upbringing. She’s been in the state’s custody and while she said she had good social workers, she wants to be a social worker that the children can relate to.
“I had great social workers, but none of them shared experiences with me that they had that were similar to mine,” Lewis said. “They just stayed professional and I just feel like if you can be personal with someone and share with them how you have been in life and how you were able to get through it, it will help someone else get through their situation.”
For now, Lewis is using her platform to fight for the community of people in West Virginia and the United States with disabilities. In addition to attending school, she participates in the “We Can” mentoring program in Princeton. She volunteers to be a mentor to children that may be in difficult situations.
“With this organization (Ms. Wheelchair America), if I can show people and make fitness more accessible for people with disabilities, then they can live such a happier and strong life,” Lewis said. “They can get out of their shell and be able to work out and focus on their mental health because it is so sad how many people we lose because they cannot fight it and mental health gets the best of them. It breaks my heart to think that I can save those people and stuff.”
Lewis is planning to travel to Little Rock, Arak. in August for the Ms. Wheelchair America nationals competition, which continues to focus on advocacy and awareness instead of normalized beauty standards. However, she needs the public’s help to get there.
“I am trying to raise money to go to nationals,” Lewis said. “We have a GoFundMe page up on my Facebook page and people can donate that way.”
Lewis also said that anyone willing to help with expenses for the National competition can contact her at mswheelchairWV2020@gmail.com or call her at 304-809-6595.
“I am not sure what all you win and just being able to represent your state alone is awesome, but I want to represent the nation and all 50 states and be able to go out and share my story,” Lewis said. “I am younger than a lot of women and I have the worst stage fright ever, but I am so into it and I want to do it so bad because I feel like I can make a difference and I won’t stop until I do.”
— Contact Emily Rice at email@example.com