Handicapped Augustan back on the road



Rodney Dreaden was full of anxiety -- or as the Indiana native puts it, "jitters" -- the first time he took to the road after the accident that severed his spinal cord.

He edged into traffic on Augusta West Parkway and headed toward Washington Road, his hands and elbow working the levers and buttons that replaced the actions his feet once performed.

"I don't know how to explain it," Dreaden said. "It was like getting some part of my life back."

For the millions of handicapped, regaining the ability to operate a vehicle can be a liberating experience.

It certainly was for Dreaden. About four years ago, driving caused him to lose the use of his legs and left him with only minimal use of his hands and arms.

Dreaden was steering a bulldozer down a steep road near Irwin, Ky., as part of the logging operation he had worked on for a few months. He isn't sure why, but the bulldozer's tread began to slip into the nearby ravine. As it began to fall, he fell from the window of the vehicle. He awoke hanging upside down by his legs from a small tree with no recollection of what happened. His lungs punctured, Dreaden began to scream for help.

After his rescue, Dreaden's life was never the same. He now has some use of his arms, but he will never walk again. He's spent years trying to regain control of his life.

When he came to Walton West Transitional Living Center, Dreaden said he had no concept of what he'd be able to do again. But soon it became clear that it was more than he ever thought possible.

Because driving had played such a big part in his accident, Dreaden said it was a huge step to be in control of a vehicle again. He struggled for a while. A quick look inside his custom Buick van shows why.

The driver's seat varies greatly from a typical car -- with controls in unusual places.

A small computer in the dash operates functions such as starting the vehicle and the wipers. Dreaden steers with his right arm by turning a handle, called a Tri-pin, that protrudes from the front of the steering wheel. He pushes a lever forward and backward with his left arm to control braking and acceleration. The turn signals are controlled by pushing a button on the door with his elbow.

"It took a while," Dreaden said. "Even though I couldn't move my feet, my instincts kept trying to make my feet move."

Since those difficult early days, Dreaden said he's much more confident behind the wheel and in life. He has his own apartment at Harrison Heights Assisted and Independent Living on Walton Way Extension, where he can function with only minimal help from the staff.

"I know how I felt when I first got hurt," Dreaden said. "I wasn't going to be able to do nothing but sit in that chair, but then I realized there are things that I never knew I'd be able to do. It's just a matter of how hard you want to work."

Rodney Dreaden

AGE: 40

FAMILY: Children, Rodney Jr., 16; Jessica, 17.

QUOTE: "I've amazed myself the things I've been able to do."