On her own again
SALEM – Three years after a stroke stole her life as she knew it, Army Senior Sgt. Seyward McKinney is living on her own again.
McKinney, now 28, came home safely after eight months in Iraq. She and her family remember the Friday the 13th she had the stroke while she was on active duty and living in Texas. McKinney spent months in hospitals and rehabilitation, and two years at Walter Reed in Washington, D.C., learning to live again. A year ago she signed a contract on her house in East Salem on another Friday the 13th. In July of this year, she moved into her own home.
The Glenvar High School graduate was able to purchase the new house that had never been lived in through a combination of money she had saved and a $64,000-grant related to her Army service and injuries.
Then builders Donnie Martin and Bruce Lucado of Bill Henry Inc. spent the next months adapting it for McKinney’s needs.
Along her journey to her independence, she’s acquired Whitney, a Paws for Purple Hearts assistance dog she helped train while at Walter Reed. Whitney has been McKinney’s helper for a year. Whitney helps her walk up and down steps, will tug open doors, pick up objects for her, and steady her while McKinney works through physical therapy to walk more smoothly and get stronger.
McKinney also is working to improve her speech and get better at doing things with her left hand. Before the stroke, she was right handed. The former Glenvar High School soccer star who competed in track and field and ran cross country rides a racing bike. She learned how to ski by herself through adaptive skiing at Snowshoe, and has gone through special training in Richmond to learn to drive again.
“I’m licensed to drive in a 10 mile radius from home,” she said, proudly. That means she can drive her outfitted SUV to her therapy and prosthetics appointments by herself, and go to the home of her parents, Bill and Cynthia McKinney, and younger brother Abe on Twelve O’clock Knob.
“I’m planning on taking another class so I can drive up to 25 miles away,” McKinney added.
Right now she’s going through intensive, six-hour a day classes in PIRATE which stands for Program for Intensive Residential Aphasia Treatment and Education. “I’m learning how to spell. I can’t remember how to spell, and I have trouble pulling words out.”
Donnie Martin and crew put a storage room underneath the main floor and finished the basement apartment and exercise room. That’s where her special racing bike is she used to compete in national Wounded Warrior games, and other exercise equipment. Throughout the house he completed adaptations to make her life easier: a sloped ramp from the driveway to the back door, cabinets with doors that gently close themselves after she’s opened them, a convenient height dishwasher and oven, pull-out shelves, counters the right height for a wheelchair, should she need one later. A pocket door between the bedroom and bathroom. Wider door openings. An alarm system. Safety grips in the bathroom, which is huge: 14-by-14 feet. The larger size accommodates a 5-foot turnaround for a wheel chair.
There’s a mud room for the stacked washer and dryer. McKinney’s pet birds are there, too – Sweet Pea, a quaker parrot; and cockatiels MoJo, Bantie and Emma.
Martin added a screened porch she can navigate to let Whitney out. And McKinney also has a one-handed pooper scooper to use after the golden retriever has chased rabbits in the fenced back yard and had her fill of rolling on her back in the sunshine.
McKinney has about 15 special gadgets from the Veterans Affairs Medical Center that help her do things in the kitchen, actions most of us take for granted.
For instance, “There’s a suction cup to hold a pan in place on the stove so I can stir it,” she said, demonstrating.
McKinney picked out the tile and monkey shower curtain herself, as she did with the dark apple green paint of the living room and most of the furnishings.
“We bought almost everything for the house from the Lowe’s in Salem,” her dad said.
Her parents and McKinney praise all the care Donnie Martin took in adapting the house, and adding storage areas for her.
She has an office where maybe sometime soon, she will be doing homework to complete the seven credits she needs for an associate degree from Virginia Western Community College. “Now that she’s settled, there’s a guy in Texas who is going to help her pursue education or job training,” her dad said.
The walls are decorated with Whitney’s assistance dog certificate, photographs of McKinney accepting awards, and a rack that displays a military coin designed for her.
“You can see she’s saluting with her left hand, and that her right arm is not hanging straight,” her mother pointed out.
There’s also a Daughters of the American Revolution membership certificate. Members of the Fort Lewis DAR chapter gave her a housewarming shower.
When asked what she likes about her home, McKinney is quick to answer: “Everything.” Her favorite room in which to relax is the living room where she settles into the sofa to uses her laptop to keep up with friends while watching television. And glued to her side is Whitney. “The family joke is she’s a lap dog,” McKinney said.