Natalie's story: survival, struggle and the message in between

Natalie's story: survival, struggle and the message in between

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - The story was shocking.  An Arkansas State University student at a fraternity party impaled in the neck by a broken golf club.

Natalie Eaton's life changed in a matter of minutes. She couldn't move, and without help, would have died. Natalie recently talked with Diana Davis about what that moment and the moments since have been like.

There are messages of hope painted on individual ceiling tiles that hang above a gym designed for physical therapy at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. Natalie stands poised against this backdrop listening intently to the instruction of her therapist, Cathi Dugger.

"Come back over here and step backwards," said Dugger.

This is not the type of instruction Natalie thought she'd get as a college freshman.

"I'm kind of like in the air trying to figure out how to do things," said Natalie. "Like my hair--it doesn't feel like my hair.  So when I brush it, it feels weird."

That's a sharp contrast to the life she once knew.

  • For an interactive timeline detailing Natalie's journey, click here.

"And when I lose my way, I close my eyes," sings a vastly different looking Natalie.  This one is performing on stage in an evening gown, hair swept back. The arm that struggles to move after the accident is expressive, accentuating the feeling of the song being sung at Miss Arkansas Outstanding Teen pageant in 2013.

In fact, Natalie was no stranger to the stage.  She won pageants, sang at her church, had just pledged a sorority and was looking forward to college.

Her mother, Fonda, had just paid for her books. "I was still in town," Fonda said.  "I got the call from my sister."

"I was at the fraternity house," Natalie said. "They were grilling hamburgers. Me and two of the red-headed girls said, 'let's take a picture.' So we took a picture."

And with that, Natalie's fate was sealed.

"Seconds before, I switched places with another girl," said Natalie.  "That's when the golf club came."

There in a photograph taken just seconds later, is a smiling Natalie standing alongside two other friends. Look closer at the photo and you see what she couldn't... the young man about to take a swing. The golf club colliding with, of all things, a football.  Breaking in two. One end traveling some 30 feet before impaling Natalie in the neck.

"It was just instant paralyzation," said Natalie. "So that was the scariest part is that I knew I was down and I couldn't move."

Natalie tried to move her head and could hear metal scrape.

"It was pretty devastating," said Fonda. "She said all I saw was blood everywhere, Mom. She said the guys were throwing up.  The girls wouldn't even look at me."

"I had no clue what it was," said Natalie. "It was just like from my head to my toes, my body just shut down."

Students rallied to help, including the young man with the golf club, who tried to stop the bleeding with his shirt. But at that point, Natalie says God intervened.  Her brother, Brody Eaton, a doctor in residency, was performing physicals just down the street.

"It's almost weird because he got there so quick," said Natalie.

"I don't know who it was, but some guy walked by and said, 'Man she's bleeding to death! She's gonna die!' My son said, 'Natalie, don't listen to them. You're gonna be fine.'"

Brody stayed by her side then and in the ambulance--later delivering the news to his mother.

"He said, 'you'd better straighten up! You got to stop crying. She's going to be OK. She'll probably be paralyzed. But, she'll be Ok. She's gonna live."

The club's end, deep into her neck, couldn't be removed in Jonesboro. Natalie would be flown to The Med in Memphis for emergency surgery lasting through the night and into the next morning.

"We said, 'Well how is she?'" said Fonda. "He said, 'You just gotta come see! You just gotta come see."

Natalie had already started moving her left side. But, the right was not responding.

"I just thought, my life is over," said Natalie.  "I have movement in this side. But, the other side doesn't do anything. I can't walk with just one leg."

The injury to her spinal cord resulted in Brown-Sequard Syndrome: a loss of motor function, touch and sense of positioning. Every movement, every step is difficult. The physical therapy that Natalie faces at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta is very exhausting and sometimes emotionally overwhelming.

"Every day is hard," said Natalie. "It's very hard.  But, I have had so much support from home."  She points to stacks of letters, cards and gifts from her hometown and fellow students from Arkansas State.

"It's just a sad thing and we know she's going to get better. We know she's going to get where she wants to be."

But, it's a slow process at the Shepherd Center, one of the top rehabilitation hospitals for spinal cord and brain injuries.

"It's a marathon and we are just the first steps," said Dugger, Natalie's physical therapist.

Dugger is part of Natalie's treatment team that includes physical and occupational therapy, as well as counseling.

"The right side is the weak side," said Dugger. "But the other challenge is on the left side.  It's the feeling."

Rehabilitation machines use electrical stimulation to strengthen her right arm, shoulder and grip.  Then, it's on to walking and re-learning balance with the help of a body weight support system on an overhead track known as the Zero G.  Natalie is pushed daily to work a body that doesn't always want to work for her, and she gets tired. So, does she blame the young man who caused the accident?

"I'm not gonna say that I don't have my moments," said Natalie.  "I do have my moments where I want to blame someone.  I'm angry and I'm just mad at the whole situation because it's hard."

"He has written Natalie a note," said Fonda about the young man who hit the football with the golf club. "It's very, very sincere. It's one of those that will make you cry when you read it."

It talks of Natalie's courage and his sorrow for the pain and worry she has gone through.

"Every time I got upset, God was there for me," said Natalie. "You're mine. I have a plan for you and this is not it... and I still believe that."

"There's going to be something glorious that comes out of this," explained Natalie. "I do believe that one day that I will walk again and do the things that I can do and it will be a normal life. It's just going to be a long way to get there."

Natalie is currently classified as an "incomplete" quadriplegic. That means she is still making progress. A "complete" quadriplegic means progress has stopped. So, as you can see, she's pushing to regain her abilities.  Her goal? To walk to class at Arkansas State. She says she wants to go back to the life she had just begun to experience...only two days into her freshman year.


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