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Student on road to recovery after motorcycle accident

Published on Wednesday, May 3, 2006
Name: Cynthia Hoffman
Kansas State Collegian

Chris Wallace isn't afraid to tell people what he thinks. He said he only wishes they could understand what he was saying.

"Not being able to talk fluently is a challenge I face every day," Wallace said, slowly and tediously forming each word and then typing it in his LINK Assistive Talking device for clarification. "I ain't afraid to tell it like it is. I just wish people would not judge a person for talking incorrectly."

Wallace, junior in animal sciences and industry, survived a motorcycle accident five years ago and is still working on the recovery process.

He used a piece of paper, his talking device and hand gestures for emphasis in recalling a March 10, 2001, accident that changed his life.

Chris and his father, Heinz Wallace, were riding motorcycles about 7 1/2 miles south of Junction City on Kansas Highway 57 when two dogs ran out onto the road. Chris said he didn't want to hit the dogs, so he swerved off the road and hit a small group of yearling trees. Upon hitting the trees, he lost his balance and fell off his 1976 Harley Davidson Sportster. He said he was thrown 500 feet, or more than the length of 1 1/2 football fields, before hitting a fence post.

"I remember flying in the air and hitting a fence post with my shoulder," Chris said as he took a deep breath and mapped his explanation on a piece of paper. "My mom told me that there was a big oak tree five feet away from the fence post. If I would have hit it I probably would have died."

Chris was flown to Via Christi St. Francis Hospital in Wichita, where he was in a coma for two months before waking up in the Wichita Lady of Lourdes Rehab Center.

Chris said he was wearing a helmet, leather jacket, pants and motorcycle riding boots the day of the accident. But despite the safety practices, he still received numerous injuries, including a fractured ankle, torn liver, bruised kidney, broken ribs, a broken bone in his upper arm, a shoulder injury and a traumatic brain injury that left him with reduced motor skills and the inability to talk like he did before the accident. He participated in rehab for five months and went to outpatient physical, occupational and speech therapy.

Pam Wallace, Chris's mother, said he has made great improvements.

"Chris has put his heart and soul into his recovery," she said. "If you would have seen him five years ago you wouldn't believe that he has come so far. He was released from outpatient therapy in 2004, but still continues to work on different things at home."

Five years ago, one of Chris's goals was to learn how to walk again. On Jan. 1, 2005, he said "no more chair," and began walking. Now he's focused on improving his speech and completing school.

Kevin Donnelly, assistant dean of the College of Agriculture and Chris's academic adviser, said Chris's progress has been steady, and he's gradually been able to increase the number of courses he takes per semester.

"I know it's a challenge for him to get around and communicate, but he always seems to be progressing," Donnelly said. "He's very persistent, and I believe that he will make it through college."

Chris first attended K-State in fall 2000 and was going to major in agriculture education. After the accident, he returned to school in fall 2002 and changed his major to animal sciences and industry.

Besides attending classes, Chris also works for the animal sciences department. He helps professor emeritus Miles McKee with a history project for the department.

Chris sat up a little straighter at his work desk as he talked about his responsibility of scanning old pictures and livestock reports to be used for the project.

"I enjoy working with Chris very much. I think it gives him a feeling of worth because we value his work very much," McKee said. "This project allows him to learn about our department history and background. It was something he could do, and it seems to be a good fit."

Chris has worked for McKee for two years, and McKee said Chris is different than his other employees, because he has an extreme amount of patience.

"I won't give up," Chris said, forcing his mouth to articulate each word.

Pam said he has always been self-determined and self-motivated. She said she and her husband are proud of how Chris deals with the situation.

"It is really difficult to talk about Chris's accident," she said. "The kid had everything going for him. He lived in an apartment and was doing well in college. He didn't ask for this, and he doesn't deserve it, but he deals with it every day."

Chris combats the everyday challenges with a positive attitude. Donnelly said Chris's positive outlook on life is one thing he enjoys about being his adviser.

"One day he showed me the lift system he made for his truck," Donnelly said. "He was really excited, and I was impressed that he came up with it. We stood out in the cold, looked at the truck and talked for an hour. I had a winter coat on, and he did not, but he was happy despite the bad weather."

Chris began driving again in fall 2003. He said the doctors thought he might need something special, but he said he knew his 1998 Chevrolet truck would work just fine.

Instead of being stopped by obstacles, Chris said he seems to find his way around them. He said accomplishments like driving and walking again encourage him to keep going. His "I-won't-give-up" attitude seems to be what encourages others to keep going as well.

"He has so much patience when working with each of us," McKee said. "There are days when I get so frustrated with trying to understand what he's trying to say, and sometimes I just want to give up. But I look at him and see that I can't give up because this amazing young man won't give up."

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