But tomorrow, You have to get back up.
At only 21 years old, Sergia Soto had her entire life ahead of her. She aspired to be a police officer, loved going to raves, traveling and hanging out with her friends. She could have never anticipated the harsh turn life would take so very suddenly.
I was drawn to Sergia’s story for selfish reasons, if I’m being honest. My youngest daughter was born with a condition called Spina Bifida and is wheelchair bound, just like Sergia is now. I felt drawn to her and once we sat down to talk - I knew exactly why. Her mindset, her resiliency, and her strength are something I have seen in my daughters eyes, day in and day out. It was such an honor to have an adult conversation with someone who truly understands first hand the challenges - and the perks ;) of this lifestyle.
Unlike Lilly however, Sergia wasn’t born paralyzed.
One late night in 2017 changed everything in the blink of an eye.
She had been out to a club with some family and friends. A few people she was with had gotten into an altercation with some other girls at the club that eventually resulted in a fight breaking out. As soon as the fight was broken up, they all piled in the car to leave and started driving away.
It didn’t take long to realize that the party they had issues with at the club was now following them in their vehicle. Scared they would make them wreck, her aunt urged everyone to put their seatbelts on. After putting her own belt on, Sergia urged for her then boyfriend to do the same. When he pushed back at her about it she reached across his lap to fasten his belt.
In that very instant, a man in the car that was following them opened fire into the car.
“I didn’t realize what had happened. I saw blood and just thought my boyfriend had been shot,” she was frantically apologizing and trying to help him when suddenly it became hard to breathe and she started getting extremely tired and cold.
“I wasn’t in my body. I could see it, but I didn’t recognize it.”
They sped back to the club where EMT’s were awaiting their arrival. At this point, Sergia was in and out of consciousness but can remember bits and pieces. “I remember hearing ‘she’s losing a lot of blood’ and ‘I can’t find a heart rate’” and then she recalls “Everything got really black and cold. I just knew I wasn’t there anymore. I even saw my grandma and she’s been gone for some time now. She told me it wasn’t my time and I was still needed. I told her I wanted to stay with her, and she said they need you.”
Miraculously, she woke back up. She can remember watching the overhead lights in the hallway as she was rushed to the operating room and then blacking out yet again.
Doctors performed surgery to remove the bullet that had entered through the back of her shoulder and exited through her neck. A spinal fusion had to be done to rebuild her neck where the C5, C6 and C7 vertebrae had been shattered from the gunshot. This left her paralyzed .. from the neck down.
If you aren’t familiar with spinal injuries, then what she has overcome may not be as incredible to you as it is to me. The spine is broken into 4 large groups of vertebrae - the lowest being the sacral, then lumbar, thoracic and lastly the highest up - cervical. Each of these vertebrae control different functions in the body and the higher up the spine the trauma is - the more physical challenges you see. For reference, my daughter, who has no function from the belly button down is affected at the lowest thoracic vertebrae - T12. Sergia’s spinal injury is FOURTEEN vertebrae above Lilly’s and yet she has never allowed that to be her excuse to not push herself to her limits.
She recalls waking up to the sound of her sisters voice and instantly trying to call for her. When her sister touched her - her entire body felt like it was on fire.
She spent 1 month in the ICU and 2 months in physical rehab. Doctors had very bleak promises for Sergia. “They were such Debbie downers. They were like you’re never going to get this (mobility) back, you need to put it in your head and stop trying to do so much and get comfortable in your chair.” Her facial expressions as she told me this spoke VOLUMES 😂 “That’s not me, I could never be like that.”
After leaving the hospital, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Physically - hours of therapy daily and exercises to regain strength have been necessary. She has regained a significant amount of feeling and function back and is even working slowly on beginning to walk again. Mentally she says she has never allowed anyone to see just how mentally and emotionally excruciatingly painful the entire process has been. Not just for her, but for her family as well. She even laughs about a comment she made when waking up from surgery to try to ease her families minds and make them smile - “I hated seeing them so broken so I cracked a joke and was like ‘I don’t think I can go into work’”
“I spent so much time alone in hospitals, rehabs, it really got to me at one point. I really just wanted to kill myself, but how could I? I couldn’t cut myself because I didn’t have good grip, my meds were monitored. I considered rolling into traffic or a river once but how would I get there? I had convinced myself that everyone would be better off because I was such a burden. They initially had to help me with everything. Feeding, bathing, dressing - the whole nine yards. I would go to physical therapy every day and fake a smile and then cry myself to sleep every night.”
Then one day, her occupational therapist called and asked if she would be willing to speak to OT & PT students and educate them on her condition and treatments.
She remembered what her grandma said to her “..they need you” and from that moment on she decided to find purpose in life, she started doing her makeup again, finding ways to still do the things she once loved so much.
Today, Sergia travels. She goes to raves again. She dreams of getting a psychology degree and helping children who have undergone trauma. She has learned to truly embrace and own her happiness and her new life.
She laughs about the little silver linings like always getting to skip lines, never having to wait on bathrooms and her legs never getting fatigued.
I asked her what advice she might give to someone going through a similar situation right now..
“This whole time, my mom - anytime I’ve had a breakdown or thought I just can’t do this - why me? She’s always said - You’re allowed to have this day to be in your feelings. You’re allowed to take time to accept everything that’s happened. You’re allowed to be down. But tomorrow, you have to get back up.”
I feel like that’s a message we can all walk away with. No matter what storm you are sitting in right now, everything is temporary and you’re mindset dictates so much when it comes to how you experience life. What if we all adopted this mentality? “Embrace everything you feel. Allow yourself to feel it. If not it bottles up and comes back for you, but tomorrow - get back up.”
As we wrapped up our interview, I asked Sergia why she wanted to be apart of this project. She explained to me that even before the incident she always struggled with body image. After getting shot, for 2 years she couldn’t find the beauty in herself at all anymore. She thought she would be alone for life, that no one would want to love her. In time, she realized - she didn’t need anyone else to love her. She just needed to love herself. Her message to the women reading this, is that no matter what people think of you, or say behind your back, YOU are allowed to find beauty in yourself. YOU are responsible for your own happiness. “It’s up to you. It depends on you.”
I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to spend the day with Sergia at her photoshoot. She was fearless, kind, and hilarious. She messaged me later to let me know how special the day was for her and I wanted to take this opportunity to let her know that it doesn’t pale in comparison to how special it was for me. Thank you for showing my daughter that there is STRENGTH - even on wheels, that there is beauty even in imperfection. On the day of her shoot, Lilly got to meet her and the impact it had on both of us was absolutely priceless. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for listening to the words of you’re grandmother and not giving up. Your presence on this earth has impacted my life and the lives of so many others forever. You are beautiful. You are so very capable. You are strong. I am so honored to know you and to now, call you a friend.
A huge thank you to Katie Larrington for donating her time and talents to photograph Sergia and truly capture her beauty.
to book with Katie:
Love what Sergia wore for her shoot?
Snag her pieces here:
If you are struggling, please ask for help. Here are some great resources if you don’t know where to turn:
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
Veterans Crisis Line: https://www.veteranscrisisline.net
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website: https://afsp.org
Have you lost someone to suicide?
Tragedy assistance program for survivors FB page:https://www.facebook.com/TAPSorg/