At 22, Erin Gildner’s life was falling apart when, under the influence of alcohol, she wrecked her vehicle and found herself paralyzed. Her injury led her to public speaking, and that helped her find her passion for public health and the purpose she had been lacking.
Today Gildner is the section chief for administration with the Family Health Branch for the Arkansas Department of Health. Her title is a mouthful, and she laughs when she says it. “It sounds a lot fancier than it is,” she says. That may be true, but as an administrator, grant writer and manager responsible for improving public health for the millions of people in her home state, her job is no joke, especially when considering how far Gildner has come since she was paralyzed.
In 2002, she had just moved to Arkansas to house-sit for her mom, who had been deployed by the Navy reserves post-9/11. She wasn’t in school at the time she wrecked her car, resulting in her T11-12 SCI, and didn’t know what was next for her.
Post-injury, she eventually started speaking to college and high school students about the dangers of drinking and driving and found herself hooked. “When I was younger, I never had anybody tell me that I could be injured or possibly kill somebody by drinking and driving,” she says. “I just heard a lot of stories about people getting arrested, and I thought I was invincible.
“I have a lot of people come up to me now and say, ‘Wow you really made an impact on me.’ They make pledges to never drink and drive. Who knows if that’s really going to be the case, but I feel like it makes a big impact. I think it’s important for me to give back and to be that voice that I didn’t have. I get a lot out of it. I probably get more out of it than they do.”
The more she spoke, the more she grew interested in public health and research. “I just fell in love with it,” she says. She started working for the state and worked her way to her current position. “When you have an injury, everything about public health just becomes more [relevant] — you get more of an awareness of how the constructed environment affects your health, and the disparities between people who have spinal cord injuries and nondisabled individuals,” she says.
Helping others with SCI and educating the public about life with SCI became a mission. “I became very interested in public health and the lack of participation and employment for people who have disabilities, especially those who use wheelchairs,” she says. “I was going out and working with all these people in state government, and it was such a novel concept to them that some- body with a disability was working. It started to really get under my skin, and I started to do a lot of research about what I could do.”
To that end, she started a successful online community on Facebook for Arkansas women with SCI, and later, United Spinal Arkansas. Despite all the progress, she still sees plenty of room for improvement. “Arkansas is not great when it comes to accessibility,” she says. “There are some good pockets, but overall it’s kind of behind.”
Gildner still finds time for public speaking engagements when she can, but must divide her time between her job, her nonprofit and her husband and two sons. She met her husband in a 12-step program and has been sober for almost 15 years. The life that was “falling apart” couldn’t be more happily together, and in a way, it all came together because of her injury.
Alter Ego: Mom on Wheels
Erin is the proud mom of two boys, 11 and 13, and will tell anyone who will listen: “Being a mom and a wheelchair user is awesome.” Still, that doesn’t mean it is always easy.
“The other day I was at a meeting for a summer program that my boys are attending and out of probably 1,000 people, I was the only person in a wheelchair. I think it’s cool that I get to show people that you can be a participant in your child’s life and do everything that they can, just differently.
Still, I do feel like sometimes the chair kind of separates me from other parents. I’ve become friends with quite a few parents over the years, but the chair makes it harder to develop those relationships. There are some days where I just don’t want to fight the fight and I get frustrated, but I try to joke around with them and use humor and that usually diffuses the situation.”
Can’t Live Without:
My Spinergy FLEXRIMS have made my life so much easier. They’re really lightweight, and unlike standard wheels they have the rubber on the side, and I don’t have to touch my tires to get good traction. I’ve invested quite a few bucks into several pairs.
Back in the Saddle:
I rode and owned horses up until I was injured, but I just recently got back on a horse for the first time since my injury. It was amazing.
Why I Joined United Spinal:
I helped found the Arkansas chapter because I wasn’t happy with the resources that we had here. I wanted to build a broader network of individuals that have spinal cord injuries and disabilities. The guidance and innovative ideas I’ve received are helping me figure out what we want to do in our state.