Doctor's prognosis doesn't deter rodeo pageant queen
Jan. 3, 2011 at 4:02 p.m.
Updated Jan. 2, 2011 at 7:03 p.m.
Nearly one year after an accident that was supposed to land her in a wheelchair, Rachel Odem walked across the stage at Hill College to accept her associate degree - in heels, of course.
But enduring the two semesters of 19- and 21-hour coursework it would take to graduate after the accident wasn't even her biggest goal.
"You'd think I'd be worried about walking," the 20-year-old said. "But no - riding."
While the dangling earrings, diamond bangles and shampoo commercial-esque blonde hair might suggest differently, Rachel is straight cowgirl. And the combination of dazzler and wrangler has led to her winning more than 12 rodeo pageant titles.
She's been riding horses since she could remember and competing since she was 6.
Her mother's home is adorned with belt buckle awards, tiaras and photos of Rachel barrel racing.
The accident on Memorial Day 2009 nearly made all of that a memory.
Rachel was at a swimming hole with friends, and the self-proclaimed daredevil, who had sky dived and bungee jumped before, decided to try her hand at a "stupid rope swing."
She was approaching the 25-foot-high ledge, just as she had done a handful of times before, when her footing slipped. She dropped to the rocks below, which broke a vertebrae in her lower back, compressed her spinal cord more than 50 percent and knocked her unconscious.
Doctors at Hillcrest Medical Center in Waco said Rachel's injury was "non-surgical."
"They said there was no hope. I was going to have to change my lifestyle," she said at an interview in her mother's house in Victoria. "They said that I'd never ride a horse again."
Rachel's mom, Donna, a captain at the Victoria Fire Department, said even her years as a paramedic never prepared her for her own daughter's disaster.
"We went in to see the MRIs, and I..." Donna put her hands over her face and faked a cry. "Then I got mad, and I got proactive."
Dr. Richard Frances, a surgeon in Houston, had operated on a back injury Donna's sister had sustained. Donna overnighted Rachel's MRIs to him, and he told the duo to come up the next day.
After a four-hour surgery and eight days in bed, Rachel's Jello-like legs held her up with the help of a walker. Soon, she'd be making laps around her family's living room before graduating to 10-minute, exhausting travels on the front porch.
"I was determined my life was not going to be like that," Rachel said.
But despite a successful surgery, Rachel's battles were far from over. She struggled with scream-in-pillow pain, rehabilitation and later blood clots, a staph infection and more surgeries, all while finishing up those last two semesters of college.
That's not to mention the emotional stress Rachel's now proud to have had the strength to overcome.
"Anybody who said, 'horse,' I cried," she said. "I was pathetic, miserable. I didn't understand why it happened to me,"
Rachel credits her family with helping motivate her to recover so completely.
"I didn't baby her. I didn't humor the depression very much," Donna said. "Her brother and sister said things like, 'We're going to go ride. You ever going to come?'"
The mother and daughter laughed and teased each other about those recovery days, during which Rachel admitted she was probably "obnoxious."
Rachel is also quick to give credit to "the awesome power of prayer" for her trampling the odds.
"Luck had nothing to do with it. I'm very blessed, and I'm very favored," she said. "Now I know why. I have a testimony to share with people."
She does share her story with people every now and then, but the "sympathy vote" didn't at all contribute to her most recent accomplishment.
In November, Rachel won the title of Miss Rodeo SandHills in Odessa, also managing to take away the photogenic, horsemanship and appearance awards. It was her first contest since the accident, but the judges never knew that. And they certainly couldn't tell.
"We cried after I won," Rachel said of her and her mother. "I said, 'We did it. We're back.'"
And she's not done yet. She's now a junior at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, studying marketing.
In a few days, Rachel will pack up her horse and trailer and drive her pickup to Odessa to perform her duties as queen.
"It's a new year. My goal is to go a whole year without any surgeries," she said with an eye-roll. A couple seconds later, she perked up and changed her mind.
"Or to be an inspiration to other people."