by Elyse Wild | photography by Two Eagles Marcus
When we meet Erica Byers Pelton, she is at Rubies Salon on Cherry St. having her hair and makeup done by Erick Gerson and Elle Yared. Her bright smile casts a warmth that draws us near. She laughs and teases her husband, Curtis, while Gerson deftly applies the final touches to her face. She is kind, friendly and open as she talks lovingly about her children, upcoming vacations and her past. A few moments in her presence and leaves one with the indelible impression that she lives her life with abundant gratitude and positivity.
“You can get through anything if you are positive,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you don’t get frustrated or sad — but it means that you will always have hope, and you can get through anything.”
These are powerful words coming from Erica, whose life was changed forever when at the age of 17, a stray bullet tore through her fifth cervical vertebra, paralyzing her from the chest down. She has lived her life in a wheelchair ever since.
“Life in a wheelchair is very hard,” she expressed. “Every day is hard. The loss of independence is hard, but life is what you make of it.”
For us, meeting Erica came about through the most serendipitous of circumstances. Her husband entered her into the first ever Women’s LifeStyle makeover giveaway, and her name was chosen by a website designed to pick a random comment from a social media post, ensuring contests aren’t marred by human bias.
When Gerson and Yared finish, Erica is radiant. She grins at the camera as our photographer snaps her photo, and she beckons the rest of us to take a picture with her.
“This has been so fun,” she said.
Erica describes her life before the shooting as tumultuous: Her mother suffered a severe head injury that caused her to have drastic mood swings; her father nearly died from ruptured ulcers; she was sexually assaulted not once, but twice by adults she trusted. Alcoholism was rampant in her home life, and she witnessed her mother endure physical abuse. As a teenager, she responded to her unstable home life by partying excessively and “hanging out with the wrong crowd.”
On the evening she was shot, she was in a parked car with her friends when one of them pulled out a gun. Having been raised around firearms, Erica understood the danger. She asked that it be put away, but it was already too late — she saw fire burst from the muzzle of the gun. The bullet ripped through her spine, missing her jugular vein and vertebral artery by 1 millimeter. Over the next few weeks, her life hung in limbo as doctors worked to keep her alive. She underwent multiple surgeries, her lungs collapsed, and her vitals signs wained, but she recovered. Eighteen days after the bullet entered her spine, she began rehab at Mary Freebed, where she regained partial use of her arms. She says faith kept her going.
“You learn that there will be a time after this challenge,” she smiled. “You take it day by day and breath by breath.”
After being discharged from rehab, she dedicated herself to her studies and graduated high school on time — a tall order, given that she was a year behind even before the shooting. She went on to graduate from Grand Valley State University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
When she was 23, she married Curtis and became a mother to his three children, a role in which she was able to find independence as she handled disciplining the kids and helping them with their homework while he took care of traditional housework. Erica and Curtis are fiercely dedicated to one another and enjoy activities most couples do: traveling, watching movies and having game nights with their family.
Erica continues to have health issues as a result of the shooting. In 2014, a stage four pressure sore led her to be put on bedrest for 14 months. This, she says, has been her greatest challenge to date.
“I fell into a deep depression,” she expressed. “It was very hard. Curtis was changing my dressing, doing my IV and giving meds — and it was our anniversary. That was really hard.”
They both emphasize that Erica’s physical disability has never been an issue in their marriage.
“Everyone has their own issues,” Curtis said. “Ours are just different.”
Today, Erica is active in her church, volunteers at Mary Free Bed and organizes fundraisers for Chron’s Disease (one of her daughters was diagnosed with Chron’s at the age of 14). She is passionate about sharing her story to raise awareness around the financial cost of life with a disability — in fact, she would like to start an organization to help individuals with disabilities make their homes accessible and barrier-free.
“Accessibility is really expensive,” she said. “Everything costs money, and there is no one to pay for it. A ramp can change someone’s life.”
Erica encourages parents to take the initiative in educating their children about disabilities. She describes countless interactions with children in public, one in which involved a child pushing the handle on her motorized wheelchair and propelling her forward.
“Teach your kids to say hello and ask questions instead of staring,” she said.
Erica encourages anyone who is facing challenging circumstances to live day by day and to help others in any way they can.
“Helping others — what you do for others comes back to you,” she smiled. “You grow more, and you learn more. Life is short, and you have to live day-to-day.”