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Class of 2020: A near fatal accident didn't divert Skyler Lewis from her pursuit of an education

Lewis, who broke her back and neck in five places in a car crash in 2017, will accomplish a long-held goal this month of graduating from VCU in four years.
skyler lewis, class of 2020

Though VCU will not hold an in-person commencement ceremony this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the university will host a virtual commencement celebration May 8 and spring graduates will be invited to participate in the university's formal commencement ceremony on Dec. 12. In these challenging times, thousands of students will earn their degrees this spring. These are some of their stories.

Skyler Lewis doesn’t remember the accident — only what came right before and after it. It was Dec. 28, 2017, and the Virginia Commonwealth University sophomore was visiting family in Stafford, Virginia, for the holiday break. Late in the afternoon, near dusk, she began the drive to rescue squad duty at the local station where she volunteered. A shooting had shut down Interstate 95, so Lewis took an alternate route — one she’d never traveled before. Suddenly, a deer with a striking rack of antlers appeared in the middle of the road. Lewis veered to avoid it, and things went black.

What Lewis doesn’t recall is skidding off the road and tumbling down a long, steep embankment, her car flipping eight times in the process. She broke her back and neck in five places, and she suffered a severe concussion, broken fingers and major bleeding in her spinal column. When she regained consciousness, her first thought was, “Please be able to move.” She wiggled her toes first, then her fingers. She tried to open her door, but couldn’t. Lewis knew her injuries were serious and believed she needed help as soon as possible or her life could be in danger. But she had no idea where her phone was. Fortunately, as she desperately fumbled around for it, the phone’s screen abruptly lit up with a notification about a new email from VCU. She saw that the phone was stuck near the passenger door. She grabbed it and called 911. The police officer who soon arrived on the scene would later say, “I thought I was walking up to a fatality.”

“If I didn’t find that phone, I think I would’ve died down there,” Lewis said.

‘I needed something that … gave me a purpose’

At the hospital, Lewis was relieved to hear she was not paralyzed, but it was clear that a long, difficult recuperation lay ahead. Lewis considered taking off the spring semester, or at least reducing her course load, but she grew determined that she wasn’t going to miss a beat in her pursuit of earning a degree from VCU in four years.

“It was important to me that I continued my education,” Lewis said. “I needed something that I could do — something that gave me a purpose. I prided myself on my education. I’m a first-generation student and graduating on time was very important to me.”

Lewis worked with her teachers and adviser to enroll in classes and take them remotely that spring, occasionally doing work from a hospital bed. She was in a neck brace until April and battled with numerous complications associated with her recovery. First, there was a 14-and-a-half-hour spinal surgery in February. Two weeks later, a post-op staph infection led to another surgery. Then she got a peripherally inserted central catheter in her arm and the medication it delivered caused her liver to fail. A week after that a blood clot in her neck hospitalized her again.

Looking back, Lewis said she should have considered the advice of faculty who advised her to focus on her health before returning to school.

“There were many times during that semester that I just sat there and cried because I didn't know what else to do,” Lewis said. “I felt like it was never going to get better. It took a lot of strength and support and positive thoughts from people to really get me through that.”

"It was important to me that I continued my education. I needed something that I could do — something that gave me a purpose. I prided myself on my education. I’m a first-generation student and graduating on time was very important to me."

That spring was the most difficult test for Lewis but also just the beginning. She’d have further physical setbacks in the years afterward, including having to return to wearing a neck brace for several months last spring and summer after suffering a split ligament in her neck, but she still managed to remain on track. This month, Lewis will accomplish the goal she set in that hospital bed and graduate from VCU in four years.

Dianne Jennings, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is one of the faculty members that Lewis said has provided spiritual guidance through the many twists and turns she’s faced. Jennings said she has “never had a student who has had to face the challenges that Skyler has. What she’s done is such an accomplishment.”

Jennings said Lewis demonstrated remarkable drive and “grit” as she navigated her challenging circumstances, showing an unfailingly positive attitude through all of it.

“I’ve just been so impressed with her,” Jennings said. “She’s never given up. She’s exactly the kind of student we want here at VCU.”

‘I couldn’t be more grateful’

Lewis is quick to credit her teachers for their empathy and steady support. In addition to Jennings, she said Rachel Hill, assistant professor and assistant director of undergraduate advising in the Department of Biology, and Amy Cook, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Criminal Justice Program in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, were especially dedicated to helping her.

“We said the accident was a minor setback for a major comeback,” Lewis said. “I couldn’t be more grateful for the relationships that I have with the professors at VCU. It’s really been like a family atmosphere for me.”

Lewis arrived at VCU hoping to become a trauma doctor, inspired by her rescue squad volunteer work in high school. However, she had struggled academically as a biology major before the accident, even considering dropping out of school at one point. After the accident, she resolved to shift her academic study to a different line of interest. She became a criminal justice major, later adding a second major in psychology.

She now hopes to attend graduate school and eventually work with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Lewis said she is a sexual assault survivor and her mother is a domestic violence survivor. In her rescue squad days, Lewis responded to the scene of a murder of a domestic violence victim, and “it was something that really touched my heart and stuck with me.”

“I want to be able to help survivors go through the process of recovery and the rebuilding of yourself because I can relate to having to rebuild yourself.”

Moving forward

Lewis said she embraced the second half of her college academic study after struggling during the first half.

“When I finally figured out and pieced together what I really wanted to do, it just made the experience so much more fulfilling for me,” Lewis said. “I came to VCU thinking this is what I was doing, and there was no changing my mind and then something out of my control changed that for me. And now I couldn't imagine doing anything else.”

Lewis has had to accept a new set of rules to her life. She can’t ride a roller coaster or a horse and her long-held dream of going skydiving is out. She also had to give up going on rescue squad calls. “That was really hard to do because it had become part of my identity,” Lewis said. She carries with her a 7-inch scar on her back and an inch-and-a-half scar in the middle of her throat. At first, she was embarrassed by the scars and tried to hide them, but she said her mindset has changed, inspired in part by a line spoken by a character on a favorite TV show, “Criminal Minds,” “Scars show where we’ve been. They don’t need to dictate where we’re going.”

“My scars are symbols of my journey and what I’ve overcome,” said Lewis, a diehard Kelly Clarkson fan who has been to 13 of the star’s shows and has a Clarkson-inspired “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” tattoo. “They’re not the prettiest, and I still don’t like them all that much, but they’re a part of my story and I’m not embarrassed by them anymore.”

Lewis has even found a sense of gratitude for what the accident and its aftermath have unlocked in her.

“As crazy as it sounds, I don't think I would take the accident away,” Lewis said. “Did it suck? Yes. Did it test me in ways I've never been tested before? Absolutely. But it really changed who I am as a person and led me to what I think is really going to be my true calling in life. I don’t think I would change that journey.”

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