Roy Exum / June 16, 2011

A Hero in a Wheelchair

As we sound the drums and lower the house lights so the spotlights can pick up the newest hero in my personal Hall of Fame, you’ll notice our newest honoree is dwarfed by the motorized wheelchair she is commanding with a hand lever but we make no apology that it will serve as the Chair of Honor for Audrey Winkelsas.

In fact, that chair is a beautiful accessory to this pretty girl’s life and has enabled her to scurry from first one classroom and then the next at Wekiva High School, where she and 500 of her classmates were graduated this weekend in the annual ceremonies held near Apopka, Fla.

Audrey Winkelas was the overwhelming choice as the school’s Valedictorian where, based on a 4.0 grade-point scale, her overall average was 5.1. The reason for such a disparity was because she made A’s in 14 Advanced Placement courses, this despite the fact her classmates would literally have to help her get her lessons from her bag because her hands and wrists are too frail to lift an average textbook.

Audrey, you see, has a crippling and incurable disease called spinal muscular atrophy and it is with great pleasure we tell you that she plans to dedicate the rest of her life studying and researching the disease. She has already been awarded a full scholarship to the University of Miami in Coral Gables.

It is not her academic achievements, as heroic as they may be, that seat her on my special dais but instead the pluck, courage, grit, determination and heart this young lady has exhibited in a way that nearly brought down the building following her graduation ceremony Friday night.

The words “No,” or “I can’t” are not to be found in her stunning vocabulary and “quit” is equally abandoned. Her disease has left her racked with pneumonia at various times during her high school career and, again, we point to a 5.1 grade-point average as proof of her dauntless spirit.

Her small body is ravaged, indeed, since the muscular degeneration has affected her spine, but you need to know she earned three varsity letters in the sport of bowling. She herself helped design a ramp that she would attach to her chair. When she would abruptly stop at the bowling lane, the ball would keep going (physics, Einstein), break down the ramp and crash into the pins. She once had a high game of 181 for the Mustangs.

Her bright valedictorian’s sash is worn as a testament – and a thank you – to the literally hundreds of her classmates who have cut her food at lunch, placed a straw in her milk carton, and done countless menial tasks to make the award possible.

She types with just two fingers but her ability in doing so may be best demonstrated in her college application essay when she wrote of hope, opportunity and possibility. It said in part, “Many minds united will solve unfathomable problems and make their answers clear. Working together, we can support our weaknesses with the strengths of others to accomplish remarkable tasks.”

In a heart-warming story that appeared in the Orlando Sentinel over the weekend, she admitted she is still not used to the attention she receives in public. “Sometimes people stare and stuff. And I still, of course, get upset,” she admitted, “but you have to kind of ignore it. … It’s mostly little kids who stare — they just don’t know, they’re curious. You just keep going.”

Audrey Winkelsas will indeed “just keep going.” Her parents own a small printing shop in Orlando and are now making plans for Audrey to venture onto the Miami campus for her freshman year. Her mother told the newspaper.

“We’re kind of like a team, almost. And after 18 years, some of the things that she needs I can even anticipate without her expressing her needs,” her mother said. “Now I’m a nervous wreck.”

Audrey’s pulmonologist, Dr. Akinyemi Ajayi, explained the medical challenges that lie ahead. “The biggest problem is the respiratory system, more than anything else. It’s amazing how the simple things in life become so important at that point.”

Dr. Ajayi also said that life expectancy for SMA disease is in the mid-30s but added new ventilator technologies and other advances could push it well beyond. Audrey’s college education and her own research, when added to her pluck and courage, is further encouraging.

But the reason she enters my personal Hall of Fame is because she has turned her scars into stars. She’s ridden her wheelchair like a mighty stallion to a 5.1 grade-point average. She’s taken every advanced placement class possible. And, no, she may not be able to lift a book but she’s opened her mind as few young people ever will.

Ladies and gentleman, I present my newest giant, Audrey Winkelsas, this year’s Valedictorian at Florida’s Wekiva High School.

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