Rachael Short’s crushing accident reminds us that the star photographer sees things in her own unique way.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Rachael Short decided to ditch school about 12 years ago. It wasn’t to smoke a joint or mess around with a boyfriend. It was to chase clouds.
Short would have struggled to pay attention that day at Carmel High (where she’d later be class president) because each cumulus chunk of the shifting sky looked like its own fleeting piece of ephemeral art. She knew she had to capture the scene with her Canon AT1 on infrared film before they fled. A moment could mean the difference between a breathtaking frame and a darkened, empty sky.
One of the photos she took that day – now part of a series of 11 recently purchased by Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula – features two of her friends in a field at the mouth of the Carmel River, under a wide, dramatic sky.
There’s something striking in that picture that’s not immediately obvious. It almost looks like another world, but is unmistakeably Carmel-centric. It has big, strong, classic elements, but also an imposing depth of texture. The way she frames her friends, the clouds, the fields and the horizon, where the sky kisses the rolling hills in the distance, would be impressive from any photographer, let alone a kid who was supposed to be in class.
The Daily Life of Rachael Short
It’s that atypical eye that moved judges to vote the photo “Best Of” in the photography category at the Carmel Youth Art Show in 2000.
It’s also that unique perspective that reveals Short looks at life a little differently than the rest of us. When it flashed before her eyes, that disparity only grew.
In simplest terms, something was very wrong. Her arms didn’t move – couldn’t move. As Short lay across the backseat of the wrecked Toyota 4-Runner, her mind raced like the Little Sur after three days of rain.
“I was just looking at my right shoulder thinking: ‘Why can’t I move it?’” she says. She had just left Nepenthe’s annual Bal Masque Halloween party and was heading to an after party a couple miles down a road she and her three friends in the car had traveled countless times before. Suddenly, driver Myles Lerner lost control, slamming the car into an embankment north of Castro Canyon Bridge along Highway 1 just after midnight (see sidebar, p. 23). Short had been struggling with her seat belt when the impact pitched her into the back from the passenger seat.
The Big Sur Fire Brigade that responded first knew her condition was serious; a med-evac helicopter was immediately called. As she waited for it to hover down from the heavens – full of dark masses with night-vision goggles moving around the confined space – Short got her first hint of how her new life would affect how she sees things. Something small, something simple, consumed her as the firemen moved around her.
“I remember saying, ‘Sit me up, sit me up,’” Short says. “They wouldn’t.”
She would only later find out that for a potential paralysis victim, that’s one of the most wildly dangerous things to do.
Few things are as basic as being able to prop yourself up. Little things, she was learning – even if she didn’t fully realize it at the time – can loom huge.
Last year, Short backpacked around Cuba by herself, staying in government-controlled housing designated for tourists, snapping hundreds of pictures of the bygone-era architecture and mountainous landscapes.
Back in California, she would often jump in her truck on a whim, and head down to L.A. to visit her best friend, or travel north to San Francisco to check out a Willie Nelson show at the Fillmore or a new exhibit at the de Young.
Short also loved long, serpentine hikes, often alone, up the steep mountain behind her Apple Pie Ridge house. As wave tattoos on her feet attest, she was also drawn to the water – her favorite surf spot was Andrew Molera and she played water polo in high school.
Short started her own business with fellow photographer Evynn LeValley, opening the EXPOSED studio at 27 years old with her own earnings: an extremely rare young female gallerist in high-rent, fine art-competitive Carmel.
Put simply, Short was as intrepid and capable as she was independent.
A year later, she would need help from a ventilator just to breathe. It gave her lungs air for six long weeks. She depended on a feeding tube for nutrition over the same duration.
Doctors diagnosed her with a C5-C6 fracture dislocation, meaning her vertebra and spine were dislocated. She was classified as a C4 ASIA-A quadriplegic and told, at age 28, that she’d never again put one foot in front of the other.
“It didn’t seem real at that point,” her father Duncan says. “We always think that we live in a society where if you’re alive, we fix you.”
Adds her mother, Katherine Jenkins, “They gave her no chance of walking again.”
It can be hard to imagine what it’s like for anyone to hear from a doctor that they won’t ever be able to get up and answer the door, or use the restroom by themselves. For someone so instinctively self-sufficient, that imagination only gets less realistic.
“It still hasn’t really sunk in,” Short says, nearly five months after the accident.
Roman Reed has heard the chilling words condemn his own body.
“They told me that I’d never be able to move my arms or have kids,” he says.
His situation paralleled Short’s in basic ways: Both were addictively active, and both suffered sudden spine trauma.
Reed was a hulking middle linebacker at Chabot College who crushed his vertebra while making a tackle in the fourth quarter of the first game of his sophomore year. Today he is executive director of human relations for the Stanford Partnership for Spinal Cord Injury and Repair. His Roman Reed Foundation is a charitable organization dedicated to finding the cure for neurological disorders. The Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act, passed in 1999, allocates state funds for scientific research regarding spinal cord regeneration.
More importantly, though, after a mutual acquaintance shared word of Short’s accident, he was the ideal person for her to have by her side as she lay unmoving, uncertain and silent.
He was there with Short to take on big, uncomfortable realities like sex, bedsores, urinary tract infections and the brave new realm of assisted bowel movements. He was ready to acknowledge and discuss the fact that having no set recovery timeline can quietly be the most excruciating element of such an accident.
“Your world is completely turned around,” he says. “It’s almost like being reborn. I just told [Short] about the experiences I went through – some of that been-there-and-done-it advice.”
He was also there with the little things that Short was quickly coming to know make all the difference.
“He’s the kind of guy,” she says, “that would just show up at night with an In-N-Out burger.”
He also served as a powerful inspiration. Shortly after being admitted to the hospital, Reed secured an experimental anti-inflammatory steroid called methylprednisolone that reportedly helped New York Jets defensive lineman Dennis Byrd recover from a spinal cord injury in 2001. The treatment, combined with seven months of physical therapy, led to Reed regaining control of his triceps. Minute after minute, month after month, year after year, he labored through elaborate rehab.
Today, though he still can’t walk, Reed’s able to bench press 300 pounds and has had three kids since he was diagnosed as a quadriplegic in 1994.
Now he’s schooling Short on how stem cell treatment might help. He explains that introducing healthy embryonic stem cells to her spinal cord – which conducts electricity through the cord and stimulates the nerves to send impulses from her brain to other parts of her body – could replace those cells that have lost function.
“We’re getting so close with the research that’s going on now,” Reed says.
Currently, Reed is working to help pass Assembly Bill 190, which will add a $3 surcharge to California moving violations to fund stem cell research. Recently, StemCells Inc. in Palo Alto was approved to conduct the world’s first neural stem cell trial in spinal cord injury and have already enrolled the first group of patients.
While Reed has seen impressive scientific strides give sufferers hope, he has also seen paralysis rob people of the will to live, replacing it with depression and even death by suicide. But he sees a different perspective in Short.
“I’m 100 percent sure that if Rachael stays in shape,” he says, “10 years from now she’ll be dancing again. She’s a strong-minded woman and I know she’ll get through this.”
But when getting ready for an acupuncture appointment takes four hours – or waiting for someone to scratch a burrowing itch on your head feels like a lifetime – 10 years gets very hard to sanely conceptualize.
Short’s mornings begin with the removal of the special boots she sleeps in to prevent drop foot, a condition that could potentially destroy her leg muscles. Then, she’s straightened out on her bed and fed breakfast while she watches Regis.
After breakfast, she’s moved onto her special seatless chair where she receives her daily enema. During the 45-minute process, she sits matter-of-factly checking e-mails using a special stylus pen that’s hooked onto her hand – making the most of motion that, at the moment, essentially limits her to barely scratching her nose with her left hand.
Following some range-of-motion leg stretches, vitamins and probiotics, Short’s shower takes about an hour (she showers three times per week).
By itself, the move from her bed to the chair is a challenging process that must be done with precision to prevent dizziness from rapid blood flow to her head. The procedure usually takes no less than two people.
“Waiting for everyone to do things for me while all I can do is sit there has been the hardest part,” she says. “Having my family thrown into this has also been hard.”
Her survival is certainly a group project: Days and nights are split between longtime friend Melissa Ortega, Short’s aunt, Erin Kenyon, her cousin Jaime Parker, her mother, father and her boyfriend, Derric Oliver.
The community has responded as well. At the Big Sur Chanterelle Cook-Off a month ago, the smells of Michael Wood’s chanterelle-stuffed beef tenderloin and the infectious giggle of ginger-haired photog Michelle Magdalena provided the context for her first public appearance and a benefit which raised more than $4,000 for her care.
Friends and acquaintances circled her like Hollywood paparazzi. Short embraced the barrage of social interaction with panache, smiling with the warmth of the sun and sending off bolts of spontaneous laughter.
Her mother watched from across the room with an ear-to-ear smile.
“That day, she looked so happy and it was contagious,” Jenkins says. “People were so loving and kind; it felt like it was in the air and I was happy to see her out in a social situation interacting.”
Short says it was good to be back in Big Sur and see people from the community.
“I was happy to see all the people I was friends with before the accident,” she says. “It was also nice, and a little weird, to see people who didn’t know me before, trying to help.”
On April 10, the arts and culinary communities will rally around Short again at the Be the Light Benefit at Hidden Valley Music Seminars in Carmel Valley. The event will feature a silent auction (a night at Ventana, use of a condo in Hawaii and local art, among other items), food from culinary masters including Bernardus Lodge’s Cal Stamenov and A Moveable Feast’s Michael Jones, with Silvestri Vineyards and Talbott Vineyards among the six local wineries. There will also be live music courtesy of Nico Georis and Rick Chelew.
They aim to conjure as many funds as they can to cover her care: The med-evac helicopter and hospitalization ran $300,000 (though insurance covered all but $7,000) and the bill for alignment-saving surgery at Stanford has yet to arrive.
The other day Short couldn’t believe she flexed her ab muscle. Phantom pains had fooled her into feeling things in her legs, so she figured this tiny first flex in months was an aberration, and asked her dad to come verify that it was contracting. It actually was.
Even as her condition hasn’t completely sunken in, a different perspective has. The littlest nudge is the best moment of the month. “Where she is now compared to where she was, is like night and day,” her dad says. “They may be small advances but they are advances. As long as the advances keep advancing, anything is possible. This isn’t a life sentence.” Sitting in her wheelchair for the first time without a protective collar around her neck, as she did just last week, is an Everest-esque accomplishment.
Other simple things have changed in powerful ways.
Her relationship with her mom has grown much closer.
“Before, she was always busy and I was in [nursing] school so we didn’t see each other that much,” her mother says. “I like it late at night just before she goes to sleep, when there aren’t any visitors and the TV’s off, she’ll just share things with me that she’s been thinking about.”
Short feels comfortable opening up with her mom about the reality of the accident, something that’s harder to delve into with more casual acquaintances.
“My mom is the only one I’ve really sat down and cried with,” Short says. “It’s been easy to let go around her.”
Short’s way of looking at the world in her own way has only intensified. Her straight-ahead bluntness is an inspiring alternative to the sugarcoating or bitterness that one might expect from other victims. “That first 24 hours [after the accident], a whole bunch of family and friends kept coming through my room,” she says. “It was kinda creepy cause so many people were there and I had tubes in my nose and throat so I couldn’t talk. It felt like I was in a zoo.”
Her forgiveness might be the most unexpected approach she takes. Most people would understandably cast blame and resentment at a driver who allegedly left the scene after she was hurt and rendered unable to move – especially since he hasn’t attempted to contact her since. But Short doesn’t see it that way. “I’m not angry [at Myles],” Short says. “I’m focusing on the future.”
Her openness with the unseemly is also unusual. “I wasn’t ever super modest,” Short says, “but you get thrown into this without any other options.”
Her optimism, meanwhile, is eye-opening. “[The injury] definitely makes life a little more interesting,” she says.
Finally, her resilience, fueled by this unique perspective, has her eying her next project. She just completed a self-portrait (see p. 19) to complement this piece with help of Oliver, who has quietly done everything he can to help caretake while studying law and completing a fellowship at the Panetta Institute for Public Policy. This fall, Short hopes to have a show at her gallery featuring new images.
“I think things happen for a reason,” Short says. “I think this happened for a reason. I haven’t figured out what that reason is yet, but for some reason this happened to me.”
“She believes it happened to her and not someone else because she’s strong enough to handle it,” Oliver says.
That said, even Short is surprised by how she’s coped. “I’ve learned I’m a stronger person than I thought,” she says.
Before embarking on the new project, of course, there will be thousands of small efforts, endless tiresome treatments, and slow-moving days and nights.
“All I have is time,” Short says.
One of her favorite activities to fill that time happens in her new residence, a one-room bungalow on a Carmel property with two others inhabited by her grandmother and brother Alex. She looks deeply into the paintings by her great great-grandmother, Jessie Francis, that line the walls. There’s one of the Carmel Mission before there was any development around it that draws her eye in particular.
There are fields, and there are clouds – her own sliver of nature to reclaim and capture, however she might.
She had seen the painting before the accident. She just looks at it a little differently now.
THE BE THE LIGHT BENEFIT happens 5-8pm, Sunday, April 10, at Hidden Valley Music Seminars and Institute for the Arts, 88 West Carmel Valley Rd., Carmel Valley. $100. 901-7883. Donations can also be made at www.bethelightfundraiser.com or mailed to P.O. Box 6445, Carmel, CA 93921.