STANTON – Gina Springhower, just shy of 30 years old, is pretty and smiling as she’s perched in front of her rapt audience last week of about 90 students at Stanton High School.
She wears a black blouse, long gold necklace and blue jeans. Her legs, once strong from years of tumbling, are dainty and crossed at the knee, ending in shiny cowboy boots that will always look brand new.
She deftly maneuvers her wheelchair around the Stanton gym floor as a large screen flashes images of the wreckage from a nightmarish night eight years ago in Wayne, Nebraska.
Springhower warns sensitive students to cover their ears, then launches into a brutally honest play-by-play of the night that would change her life forever.
The brief ride in her new friend’s sports car. The high speed. The sharp turn. The flips. The ejection. The wreckage resting on her arm. The right leg in her face. The spine protruding through her skin.
Her voice never cracks or falters. She manages to put her audience at ease by poking fun at herself.
But she never lets the students forget what that bad choice cost her.
* * *
When The Nonpareil first shared then-Gina Giaffoglione’s story in 2014, she was the proud owner of Gary’s Tumbling in Glenwood, where she coached.
She was an avid thrill seeker, and she enjoyed basketball, golf, tennis, water sports and ATV rides despite being wheelchair-bound. She was eagerly anticipating her wedding and was hoping to try skydiving one day.
She has since married, blowing up the Internet with the inspirational video of her walk down the aisle in leg braces. Her father, Gary Giaffoglione, was at her side and her husband, John Springhower, was waiting at the altar.
In December, the couple welcomed their son, LaKota, to the family.
This news sparks interest with the Stanton students. “You don’t have to answer this, but how were you able to have a baby?” one Stanton student asks.
Springhower loves questions, and she’s not shy. She tells the student she was able to deliver naturally, without a cesarean section.
* * *
During her Stanton presentation, Springhower has no trouble keeping the attention of the high-schoolers.
They laugh as she shares a prank she played on obnoxious guys at the College World Series, as she confesses her fear of being chased by ugly turkeys in her yard and as she compares herself to a crunchy taco.
Despite the jokes, the message of her “Perfectly Imperfect” presentation is serious and close to her heart. Springhower, a new mother herself, wants to make sure each student hears her plea.
“There are no guarantees when you walk out that door,” she tells the teens. “Think about what you do before you do it.”
She knows as well as anyone the truth in those words. Eight years ago, she made a bad decision. That decision is what ultimately drives her to tell her story to audiences of all ages.
On March 22, 2008, Springhower, a 21-year-old student at Wayne State College in Nebraska, got in a car with a driver who had been drinking.
There was no seat or seat belt for her, but they were only going 3 miles across town.
They never made it to the party.
* * *
On that fateful day in 2008, Springhower was a college sophomore. She owned her own tumbling gym with more than 80 children enrolled and survived on Easy Mac and SpaghettiOs.
“My life was great,” she said. “It was everything I had planned on.”
The next day, after she’d been flown by helicopter to a Sioux City hospital, she was starting a new chapter of her life as a paraplegic.
She was paralyzed from the navel down.
“I went from an independent, successful college student and business owner to a dependent infant,” she said.
Springhower paints a picture of her new life for the young audience in Stanton. She wants to be sure they grasp the gravity of their choices.
She asks for a show of hands, questioning whether students have ever ridden in a car without a seat belt, crammed too many passengers in a vehicle or even ridden in a trunk.
“It’s not worth it,” she says, pointing out the obvious to those who might otherwise be oblivious.
* * *
In 2014, Springhower said she wanted to “have a family and be a good mom.” Last month, The Nonpareil again visited her home to talk about LaKota’s birth and the joy of motherhood.
In her living room, she nestles on the couch cross-legged as a fire crackles in the fireplace.
LaKota sleeps soundly in an infant seat nearby. Snow falls softly as the family’s bull mastiff, Cash, stands watch outside. Springhower says the dog, closer in size to a small horse, is very protective.
She has been asked before how it’s possible for her to push during labor.
“I pushed just like a normal able-bodied person,” she said. “But since I only have feeling in the top two abs, I had to push harder. When I would have a contraction, I would grab my legs and pull them to my chest and push. I just had to do double the work.”
Springhower has heard stories of doctors who will tell paralyzed patients they shouldn’t have babies.
“If my doctor would have said that, I would have found another doctor,” she said.
But she was under the care of Dr. Jordann Hedricks, who had delivered babies for two paralyzed mothers previously, both by C-section.
LaKota was born on Dec. 22, 2015, at 6 pounds, 13 ounces and had a full head of dark hair. While the delivery went fine, he was whisked away to the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit because he had ingested some feces in the birth canal and had some difficulty breathing.
Gina was able to visit him at first, but then she developed sporadic fevers and wasn’t allowed in the NICU for two days. By Christmas Eve, she was finally reunited with her yuletide miracle.
Like any new parent, she tackled the challenges of caring for an infant. Transporting him from one point to another is difficult, so she keeps everything close. She has a special crib and changing table made so she can have access to them from her wheelchair.
On this particular day, she was celebrating.
Springhower had bathed LaKota by herself for the first time. Previously, she’d had the help of her husband or a grandmother, but she was impatient for her independence.
“It’s one of those things that moms are supposed to do,” she said. “It was making me angry.”
Springhower said she was expecting some criticism as she and her husband started a family, but the feedback has been positive. Any critics would be wasting their breath anyway.
“You don’t tell me I can’t do something,” she said.
Being a mother, though, has already changed her priorities.
Springhower has put the sky diving plan on hold again. Because there is a good chance that a drop from an airplane would break her legs, she didn’t want to do it before her wedding as she was training for her big walk down the aisle. Now she wants to be there for her child.
“Before it was all about being free and ‘I can do what I want,’” she said, as she looked over at her sleeping baby. “But now if something happens – he is kind of a big deal.”
* * *
As she prepared for LaKota’s birth, Springhower emailed another paraplegic mom in Colorado for advice and encouragement.
“You’ll have a very independent baby, but he’ll still need you,” her new friend wrote back.
Springhower is aware her physical situation will present her son with unique opportunities and perspectives as he grows up.
“I’m excited about that,” Gina said. “Kids can be so judgmental. Hopefully, we would have raised him not to be judgmental anyway. Maybe he’ll also think twice about drinking and driving.”
That’s all she’s asking from the people in her audiences, including the Stanton students, young and old. She hopes they will all listen to that little voice in their heads.
It’s trying to get their attention for a reason.
She says, “Think about what you do before you do it.”