Cami Abernethy and Alissa Boyle were lucky to be at their own graduation.
Ten weeks earlier, the Waynesburg University nursing students tumbled 40 feet from an overpass in Greene County after stopping to save a crash victim, a fall that left Ms. Boyle paralyzed and Ms. Abernethy with twin steel rods that support her spine.
Determined to attend their May 13 graduation, the friends each received a medallion from the university president and a standing ovation from the audience. They will finish their coursework this summer.
"We started together, we finish together," Ms. Abernethy, 22, said.
Like so many early mornings last semester, the friends were en route Feb. 20 from their Waynesburg home to Morgantown for clinical rotations at Ruby Memorial Hospital. Ms. Boyle, 22, originally of Salem, Ohio, was driving when they saw an overturned Jeep Cherokee near the Mount Morris exit on Interstate 79 southbound. The women and several others stopped to assist the driver, Derek Hartzog, 21, who was trapped in the vehicle, his feet protruding from the windshield.
The Cherokee had flipped onto the left shoulder, and traffic was inching along in the right lane. After the two managed to pull Mr. Hartzog out relatively unscathed, they looked up to see a tractor-trailer barreling down the passing lane. The three had nowhere to go but over the guard rail.
As she fell, a strange, peaceful calm overcame her, Ms. Abernethy said.
"It was like flying," she said. "It was weird, but it felt like it took forever."
They landed among wild thorn bushes. Ms. Abernethy remembers everything. Ms. Boyle blacked out.
Ms. Boyle suffered a spinal cord injury that left her paralyzed from the waist down. She uses a wheelchair and is learning to move with leg braces and a walker. She's regained sensation in her hips and can feel some pressure on her thighs.
"The other day, I was sitting outside and I could feel the breeze hitting my legs," she said.
She wants to walk down the aisle as a bridesmaid at her brother's wedding in July and has been practicing with a cane and gripping her escort's arm. She sends Ms. Abernethy videos of her moving her leg. Still, it's overwhelming.
"Things that should take me five seconds to do -- getting dressed takes me so much longer now, showering, going to the bathroom," she said.
After undergoing spinal surgery, Ms. Abernethy has steel rods that extend from the base of her shoulder blades to her hips. A second surgery will shorten them, but for now, it makes standing for long periods difficult. She noted that nurses spend a lot of time on their feet.
Well-wishes have arrived from all over the country -- letters from nursing schools, cards, prayer blankets and service recordings from churches. Ms. Abernethy stores hers in a keepsake box at her parents' home in Sewickley.
Ms. Boyle's high school cheerleading team raised $15,000 toward her medical bills. Through fundraising efforts, Waynesburg University collected $20,000, Ms. Abernethy said.
They've spoken to Mr. Hartzog once or twice since the accident but have never talked to the truck driver.
Both women recovered in the Ruby Memorial Hospital, where they had worked clinical rotations. They said the time they spent as patients will influence their approach to nursing. When a patient asks for pain medicine, go now, Ms. Boyle said with a laugh. Ms. Abernethy said she will explain medical procedures to patients and families who don't know what questions to ask.
"You definitely get a different perspective because you're used to taking care of a patient, but you don't know how a patient feels," she said.
After finishing summer coursework, Ms. Abernethy will work as a registered nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit of Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC. Ms. Boyle wants to work on a cardiac floor, but her future is unclear.
Some people chide them for stopping that morning, Ms. Abernethy said.
"I guess it never crossed my mind not to stop," she said.
A June 9 motorcycle ride from Steel City Harley-Davidson, 1375 Washington Road, Washington, Pa., to the Greene County Fairgrounds will raise money for the women's medical costs. The event includes music, food and a ticket auction. Information: 724-816-6166.
Molly Born: email@example.com or 412-263-1944.