BOGALUSA, LA (WAFB) - The prognosis for spinal injuries is often bleak. It takes only a split second to become paralyzed for the rest of your life. As a physical therapist and personal trainer, that's a reality Katie Breland Hughes knows well. But when faced with that fact herself, Hughes decided to defy her own prognosis.
"We're starting at the bottom, work our way up: legs, abs, arms, cardio," the 27-year-old yelled out at a recent workout class.
Her dedicated group knows exactly what's in store over the coming hour.
"She doesn't cut you any slack. She wants you to push. She wants you to give 110 percent,” said Mandy Stewart.
It all goes down in 'Katie's Shed' just behind her Bogalusa home. One of the many motivation signs on the wall reads "you ain't never had a whoopin' until you been to the SHED."
Katie knows how to motivate, demanding strength and perseverance. And that's exactly what she would need in her darkest hour.
"I was just concentrating on breathing in and breathing out," Hughes recalled. "And I just remember wiping the blood off my face so I could breathe, cuz…it was just everywhere."
One afternoon in October 2011, Hughes was driving on an unfamiliar road when she missed a stop sign. A truck did not miss her.
"I went through the windshield and landed in a ditch area," she said. "That might have been ok, but then my car followed me and landed on top of me."
Katie was trapped for 33 agonizing minutes. The running engine burned 75 percent of her back and down her left shoulder and arm, straight through her skin and eventually the muscle. She spent three days on a ventilator before coming to.
"When I woke up, the doctor came in and straight up said like he had said it a million times before, 'Your spinal cord is severed, and you will never walk again,'"Hughes said.
During a nine-hour surgery, doctors realized her spine had not severed. Instead, two vertebrae - the L1 and L2 - shattered, leaving Katie paralyzed, but with a glimmer of hope.
"It's 90 percent mental. You just have to believe in yourself enough to say, 'No, I don't accept this. I'm not gonna remain in the chair, and I see bigger things for my life," Hughes said.
Husband Odie saw bigger things too. A mutual friend introduced them about three years ago - before the accident.
"I don't think there was much of a spark, because she doesn't even remember meeting me," he said with a smirk.
It wasn't until one year ago that the pair reconnected and got engaged. But there was one catch.
"I told my sister, I said 'I will not get married until I can walk down the aisle, and I won't have it any other way,'"
So Katie connected with Mike Barwis, a renowned sports trainer featured in the Discovery Channel TV show "American Muscle." It was Barwis who got her legs to move for the first time.
Hughes has two rods along each side of her spine, holding her vertebrae in place. Learning to move with those rods was excruciating, but Katie pushed through the pain during months of training at Barwis' Michigan facility.
Walking in a wedding dress, though, is much different than walking in Nike shorts.
"I started off with the walker with my braces without the dress on," Katie remembered. "Then I would start with the dress and then my walker, and then the dress with a cane, then the dress with two people walking by me."
A full summer of practice with days of brutal pain, and a whole lot of faith got Katie to September of this year – and the moment she'd been waiting for. It turns out she had never walked in her actual dress.
"At first my legs got caught up on one another so that was a challenge. I was nervous the whole way and I was shaking so bad," Katie said of her trip down the aisle flanked by Barwis and her father.
"I was just so proud of her. In my mind I'm just encouraging her, ‘C'mon baby, c'mon baby, you got this.'" Odie said. "I knew she had it. It's not that I had any faith in myself whatsoever but I put complete confidence in her."
With hundreds of teary eyes watching in amazement, Katie slowly and deliberately made it to the end of the aisle.
"There's just no um - there's nothing that can describe that moment," she said in our interview.
A fairytale ending to a story with one very important moral.
"C'mon, it's not the end yet! Go hard," Hughes barked in The Shed.
Perspective changes everything. Katie invites you to step into her shoes as she takes the steps many said she never would.
"A support system is the greatest thing and the most important thing you need in a situation like this," she said before Odie interrupted. "And now she has my family and I think they like her more than they like me. I know that they do."
Katie continues to work as a personal therapist and also offers workout classes twice a week. She's beginning to accept more invitations for motivational speaking and started a charity called "Katie's Cause."
"All the money that I make goes there," she said. "My goal is to have an all-accessible playground for kids, and not really just for kids, but for a mother who's in a chair that wants to take their kids and to be able to be able to play with them on the playground."
Her first gift, a wheelchair swing bought for the Bogalusa YMCA, will be installed next month. She hopes her story will inspire others who may have lost hope.
"I've had the privilege to work with other people that are in wheelchairs and just seeing them progress and seeing them just believe with me, I believe in them and just to see them finally believe in themselves, it's something that will never get old."
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