Two years ago, artist Leah Nixon Fitzgerald was paralyzed from the armpits down in a construction accident. “I’m so grateful I have my hands,” she told me. Now, along with her sister, Leah designs beautiful stationery in South Dakota. Here, she shares her favorite eyebrow product, a special way her dog helps her and what she wishes people knew about disability…
First, let’s talk beauty. What would we find in your bathroom?
I love my Quip toothbrush. I always appreciate good packaging and solutions. Speaking of design, I also swear by my Ember mug, which keeps coffee warm. I have a desire to invest in well-designed things.
How about beauty products?
For 12 years, I struggled with flaky eyebrows and I tried everything — moisturizing, essential oils. Finally, I came across Dermoscribe, and two days later I no longer had the issue! With healthy eyebrows, I feel much more confident.
You live in South Dakota with your husband, two dogs, three cats, two goats and two horses.
And 28 chickens! My dog, Lucy, is probably the closest thing to an accessory handbag that I carry around. One of the services she provides is drawing in people who might be off put by me with one leg in a wheelchair. A dog is a conversation starter.
I love that.
There’s an Elayne Boosler quote that resonates with me: ‘My fashion philosophy is, if you’re not covered in dog hair, your life is empty.’ That is my life!
Can you tell us about your accident?
I worked as a construction laborer for Habitat for Humanity. I hauled gravel, finished sidewalks, did drywalling — basically anything you imagine doing while building a house. I loved it. We were building a house in 2018, and it was a wet, muddy summer. We were putting up rafters on a house, and it was pouring but we decided to keep going. There’s a huge 22,000 pound machine called the telehandler, and I was on the ground holding the rope — the ground was so slippery, and the telehandler started to tip. The last thing I remember is struggling with the rope. So, I broke my spinal cord, and now under my armpits it goes numb.
How did you adjust your daily life?
In the beginning, there were so many issues to solve, starting with what to wear. Honestly, my uniform is super simple: Target T-shirt dresses because they’re very comfortable and pants are hard when you’re in a wheelchair. Being in a wheelchair, you have to eliminate unnecessary steps.
What are you working on now?
Grace and I had started Tiny and Snail in 2017. Before the accident, I would work on it at night and on weekends. After my accident, it became a very important part of my life, making me feel productive. We have Facebook portals so even though I’m in South Dakota and she’s in Milwaukee, we see each other for five hours a day. It’s so amazing what you can do with technology. We do a dance party at 9 a.m. every morning — we play pop music and invite everyone in our work community. Grace and I started it as a way of connecting with people but honestly it’s just been really good for us.
What kind of cards do you make?
All kinds, but we’re pretty big on sympathy cards because of my accident and how my dad had two types of cancer. The cards are easy to apply to different situations, whether they’re physical or mental hardships. A lot of the cards are just like, ‘We can’t do anything to change the situation, but we’re here for you.’ A portion of sales goes to spinal cord research.
When do you feel most beautiful?
When I’m in nature. We have a little garden, and after work I’ll go see how my seedlings are doing. And I remember once I was running on a trail in the middle of winter; it was snowing and my eyelashes got all frosty and I was like, ‘Ahhhh!’ I felt intensely beautiful.
How did you meet your husband?
Nine years ago, my sister was going bowling with some friends and I joined them. Kelsey picked us up at our door; our conversation naturally flowed, and he was super cute. We’ve been friends ever since. When I was in the ICU, he immediately flew home to be there for me, and I realized that he was the perfect person for me in this new life. He’s strong and adventurous and isn’t going to limit me or let me limit myself. I proposed to him the ICU, and he said, ‘Of course!’
Tell us about your wedding look.
I didn’t wear a dress; I wore things that worked with my body, including a gorgeous 1920’s embroidered silk robe that Kelsey had bought for me when I was in the ICU. I made a crown made of flowers from my dad’s garden. My photographer, a longtime friend and mentor, actually stepped up to do my hair! She understands curly hair and did a knock-out job. Having her and another best friend lovingly spritz and curl my hair made me feel so loved.
Where did you get married?
At the dog park, of all places. Rapid City has a gorgeous dog park next to a creek. Surrounded by dogs, laughter and family, marrying the hottest guy I have ever met, I felt so beautiful.
The only catch was that we forgot to use waterproof mascara.
What did the women in your family teach you about beauty?
My mom would often say to my sister and me, ‘You’d look beautiful even in a paper bag.” And that attitude of ‘you’re perfect just the way you are’ cuts out a lot of bullshit. Women sometimes feel like they’re not valued for much more than their exterior because that’s what’s praised and promoted in the media, and I’m ready to get past that.
What do you wish people knew about disability?
One thing that shocked me is the amount of nerve pain that I have. Most people don’t think that a person can feel any part of their body that’s paralyzed. But I have very intense pain in all my paralyzed body every waking moment. My legs have been stinging all morning and it feels like there’s a tight band around my line of injury and I have fireworks in my feet. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been sitting in an icy cold creek for eight hours.
That sounds really hard.
At the beginning, I was also afraid to identify with being disabled. At the hospital, my body was covered up with blankets and honestly, I identified more with a rotisserie chicken than a human being. Inside, I felt like I was the exact same person as before my accident. But a few months afterward, I started to want to meet more people in wheelchairs. And have interesting conversations about what your body is doing or solutions you’ve found or just how much this sucks! Now I feel really positive about being part of this community, and I just joined the ADA committee that advises the mayor.
How would you describe yourself now?
Amputee, spinal cord injury survivor, designer, artist, (former) female construction worker. Lover of the earth and beauty and poetry. An avid seeker of truth. And a dog mom!
Thank you so much, Leah!
(Photos courtesy of Leah Nixon Fitzgerald. Wedding photos taken by Jacques, Annie and Philip Daniel.)