Church member rebounds from tragedy to run business on a shoestring and a prayer

This article is reprinted by permission from The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Ky. Its original headline was "Hope, Work Keep Woman Going."

By Byron Crawford

MOUNT VERNON, Ky.--If you're searching for a hero, you might want to stop by the small Greenhill Auto Parts store, five miles up U.S. 25 from Mount Vernon in Rockcastle County.

There you'll find 38-year-old Debbie Witt, the store's manager, parked behind the counter in a motorized wheelchair with a car horn attached. Miss Witt has been a quadriplegic since age 19, when she was thrown from a car during a traffic accident and her neck was broken in three places.

"I had my seat belt on, but I took it off to back the car out of the driveway that morning--and neglected to put it back on," she recalled. "I was driving my grandfather's '76 Ford Pinto. I had to go to Somerset to work on some bookkeeping for a company.

"In Pulaski County, I hit a bad place in the road on Highway 461 and lost control of the car, hit a telephone pole, went through the windshield, did a flip in the air and landed in a barbed-wire fence."

Miss Witt would spend two months at the University of Kentucky Medical Center and five more in rehabilitation at Cardinal Hill Hospital in Lexington, learning to live with virtually no movement from the neck down. She would never again play the trumpet and could no longer use the knitting needles that had helped her win many blue ribbons in 4-H competitions at county and state fairs.

"She couldn't scratch her nose," her father, Harry Witt, remembered. "But she asked them at the rehab center to teach her how to do auto body work, and she told me to save all my bookkeeping so she could do it when she got home."

Debbie looks back on those darkest days with special affection for an occupational therapist at Cardinal Hill Hospital.

"I remember asking her if I'd ever be able to sign my name, and she said yes. And I asked if I'd ever be able to use the typewriter and an adding machine, and she said yes. At that time, if she'd have said no, I probably would have given up right then. She gave me hope, and that's what kept me going."

Since 1988 Miss Witt has devoted much of her attention to the small auto-parts business that she started on a shoestring and a prayer.

"I needed something to keep me busy and something where I could talk and meet people," she said. "It's been a long, drawn-out process. The way I got started was, I talked the guy that owned the parts store into starting me out by putting some of the parts in on consignment."

A friend provided her with a computer and gave her the instruction books. She now keeps track of her inventory on the computer, and one day, when her budget will permit, she hopes to go online.

The woman who, as a girl, had dreamed of one day having a husband and two children, "a boy and a girl," now struggles with the complex challenges of survival as a quadriplegic and a businessperson.

She can strike the keys of her typewriter and computer--and she is able to leaf through thousands of pages of parts catalogs--with the use of two pencils, fitted with large erasers, inserted in small sleeves on her wrist extension splints.

Some limited feeling has returned to her muscles, but with it has come the pain of severe muscle spasms.

Her auto-parts business, which is several miles from the nearest town, is struggling to survive increasing competition from the large franchise parts stores nearby and from Wal-Mart.

But Miss Witt is not giving up. She is concentrating her studies on the computer in the hope that one day it may offer an alternative to the auto-parts business and an opportunity for success in another field.

"Hope has to be there," she said. "I'm constantly trying to move my legs. I feel like I can move them, but they won't move. I'm trapped in a body that won't work . . . But I feel like I can move my left side more than my right.

"You never know, and you have to have that hope that someday there's a possibility that a person like me could get well. Once the hope is gone, you're in trouble."

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