Having done it countless times before, she didn’t give it a second thought when she got behind the wheel of her car to drive herself home after downing numerous alcoholic beverages at a bar.
But the odds finally caught up with Shawna Buchanan at about 1:30 a.m. on Nov. 11, 2006. Due to her impaired condition, she drove off of Highway 137 near Dixon Road south of Licking. Her car tore up 100 feet of fence, rolled and smashed into a telephone pole.
At that moment, the 24-year-old Buchanan’s life changed forever. She was no longer a carefree party girl with little or no regard for potential ramifications of her lifestyle, but a C5 quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down.
“I took too many shots, drank too many beers and then tried to drive home,” Buchanan said. “I didn’t think anything bad would ever happen to me. I thought I was too cool for that, so I lived my life like that.”
Living “like that” meant spending a significant part of each and every day throwing back some sort of alcoholic concoction.
“I drank every chance I could –– if I wasn’t working, I was probably drinking,” Buchanan said. “I would get off work at midnight and go buy a 12-pack before I went home. It was absolutely a lifestyle.
“But I got away with it, so I thought it was OK.”
Buchanan has been a resident of Licking most of her life. She graduated from high school there and lives there now. But a month before her accident, she moved in with her boyfriend at Cabool and after leaving a favorite nighttime hangout in her longtime hometown, she was heading in that direction when she crashed.
Now 31, Buchanan has made a mission out of warning young people to avoid duplicating her mistake. She frequently speaks in front of groups in hopes of preventing as many as possible from going down the path she followed.
“I just don’t want to see anyone have to go through things I’ve been through,” she said, “because I know how scary it is and how much it sucks.”
Every eight weeks, Buchanan speaks to a group of troubled high school age teens at a facility in Rolla.
“The kids there cycle through, so there’s a new group every time I go,” she said.
Buchanan has also presented her message at Cabool High School, the Gentry Residential Treatment Center in Cabool (where she was employed at the time of the wreck) and a church in Mountain Grove.
“I want people to realize they’re not invincible,” she said, “especially if they’re at that age where they’re having fun going out and doing reckless things. You can only get away with something like this for so long. Eventually it’s going to catch up with you.”
After her single-vehicle crash, Buchanan was transported to a Springfield hospital.
“When I first woke up, I automatically knew I was in a wreck,” she said. “The last thing I remembered was being at the bar, but I was very concerned about whether anyone else was involved.”
Buchanan asked her boyfriend, Troy McCauley, if she had hurt anyone or if she was going to jail (since she was on probation at the time).
“Then I asked him if he still loved me,” she said.
Buchanan and McCauley are together today.
“I was terrified,” she said. “I felt like I was tied to the bed because I couldn’t move. I don’t really remember being told I was paralyzed and was never going to walk again. But I somehow knew there was something very wrong.”
What was wrong left Buchanan without use of her hands or legs and only partial use of her arms. Following her brush with death, Buchanan went through an extended period of emotional stress before deciding her life’s focus would be delivering her message of warning.
“It took a long time to accept what I had done to myself and it took several years before I could talk about it,” she said. “When I finally realized what my life was going to be like, it was like, ‘Might as well deal with it and do what you can with it.’”
Because of an earlier accident, Buchanan had cut the seat belts out of her car not long before her fateful, final road trip. Frequently dealing with aftereffects of the wreck, she has undergone seven rounds of month-long physical therapy sessions and just last Friday had surgery on both of her feet.
“They shaved bone down and cut tendons in my toes because they were starting to curl under from not being used,” Buchanan said. “They cut the tendons to straighten them out.”
Making the best of her predicament, Buchanan finds ways to use what’s left of her motor functions.
“I am able to type, feed myself with food cut up, and use my touch screen phone,” she said. “I can’t really do much with my hands, so I’ve become pretty good at using my mouth for lots of things. But I have to have help doing pretty much everything.
“I do what I can, but that’s not much.”
Buchanan’s mother, Linda Buchanan, is a first-grade teacher at Houston Elementary School. She recalls only too vividly the day her daughter’s life changed –– and her own.
“Texas County left a message on my answering machine that said Shawna had been in an accident,” Linda said. “I didn’t get too upset at that point, because she had been in about three accidents already. Not that I downplayed it, I’d just heard it before. I was probably not knowing what to expect, but not thinking the worst.
On her way to Springfield, Linda’s cell phone rang.
“Shawna’s boyfriend called and said they were having to put her on a ventilator,” she said. “At that moment, I knew this was not going to be good.”
When the anxious mom reached the hospital, doctors quickly cornered her and shared the bad news.
“They took me into that little room –– which you always know is bad –– and described her injuries,” Linda said. “They said they doubted seriously that she would walk out of the hospital.”
Linda recalls then feeling completely numb. She struggled to come to grips with the reality of the incident.
“I was in denial until the first time I saw her in a wheel chair,” she said. “The accident was in November and that was in late January. That’s when I lost it.
“When they’re in bed, you can pretend. But seeing her in a wheel chair was extremely difficult, because now it was real. It’s been seven years now, but I can remember it like it was yesterday.”
When Shawna’s car slammed into the telephone pole, a power transformer was knocked out and parts of Licking were without electricity.
“Mine went out,” Linda said. “And you know how when the power goes out, you hear something in your house beep? I heard a beep, and I can still clearly remember that sound. I wondered why I focused on that beep. It was Shawna hitting the pole.”
As tragic as the whole situation was and is, Linda Buchanan believes there’s a reason her daughter isn’t dead and recognizes a purpose to her plight.
“I’m proud of her for taking accountability and being able to actually admit she made a very poor choice,” she said. “But I’m the type a person who believes there is good that comes out of everything, even though you might not know what it is for a while. This is a good example, because there has been a lot of positive that has come from this.
“Does that make it any better? No. But if we can stop one person from doing the same kind of thing, that’s good.”
Linda said the standard “don’t drink and drive” message of not killing someone is all well and good, but there’s another, less publicized side to the issue.
“You never hear anything about what happens if you don’t die,” she said. “People have no clue what’s involved, and it affects every single person you know.”
Shawna knows that some kids who hear her message aren’t affected. But others are –– some in a big way.
“You can tell some kids don’t really care,” she said. “But when I’m done speaking, I’ll answer questions, and a lot of them get really involved and want a lot of information.”
Buchanan admits that memories of her wild days and ways aren’t all bad. But she now knows better.
“I had a lot of fun –– I’m not going to deny that,” she said. “But it wasn’t worth it at all.”
“It took a long time to accept what I had done to myself and it took several years before I could talk about it. When I finally realized what my life was going to be like, it was like, ‘Might as well deal with it and do what you can with it.’”