Paralyzed Professor Returns to Classroom

Paralyzed Professor Returns to Classroom

By Alexis BlueUniversity Communications
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Sheila Pitt says returning to teaching this year, a year and a half after her accident, has been the best decision she could have made.
Sheila Pitt says returning to teaching this year, a year and a half after her accident, has been the best decision she could have made.
Students in Pitt's printmaking class say her physical disability has not changed her ability to push them hard to do their best work.
Students in Pitt's printmaking class say her physical disability has not changed her ability to push them hard to do their best work.
Unable to move her arms and hands, Pitt has had to become more verbally descriptive in her teaching style.
Unable to move her arms and hands, Pitt has had to become more verbally descriptive in her teaching style.
Pitt uses a computer to create images inspired by her quadriplegia. This print, titled "The Collar," of a person wearing a 17th-century dog collar, represents the collar Pitt was forced to wear for two months after she broke her neck.
Pitt uses a computer to create images inspired by her quadriplegia. This print, titled "The Collar," of a person wearing a 17th-century dog collar, represents the collar Pitt was forced to wear for two months after she broke her neck.
"Quadriplegia," by Sheila Pitt
"Quadriplegia," by Sheila Pitt

Sheila Pitt always felt at home on a horse. She'd owned them for nearly 40 years, since she moved to Tucson from Philadelphia in 1971. Dressed in a tuxedo, she showed them in dressage competitions, which she likens to gymnastics competitions for horses. From atop their backs, she prompted them to trot around the arena in a show of athleticism for the judges.

Like any horsewoman, she'd had her fair share of falls from the saddle, but nothing major – just some bumps and bruises here and there. So she wasn't scared when her dream horse, Donovan, stumbled while casually walking the arena at the local barn where she boarded him. She wasn't worried when she felt herself going over the top of the animal's head, the ground rising up to meet her.

She didn't know yet that this fall would be different, would change her life forever.

"I wasn't concerned that I was coming off, because, you know, people fall. But when I landed, I realized I couldn't feel my body or my arms and I said to myself, ‘You really did it this time, Sheila,'" she recalls.

Pitt was rushed to University Medical Center, then airlifted to Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix to undergo surgery on her broken neck. She stayed there for three months, facing a new life as a quadriplegic. 

It was February 2008, early in the spring semester at the University of Arizona, where Pitt was a professor in the School of Art. She wouldn't be returning to class that year, or possibly ever.

Paralyzed from the neck down, Pitt would have to give up horseback riding, one of the loves of her life. Unable to move her arms and hands, it seemed she would no longer be able to practice art either. Before the accident, she did woodcut printmaking, which involves doing intricate cutouts on pieces of wood, using your hands.

"I just didn't believe it," Pitt recalls. "I still wake up in the morning and don't believe it every morning. I'm like, how can this be? Because I was so active. Teaching and riding and traveling and gardening and doing all kinds of things."

It seemed, then, like life as she knew it might be over. But this year, just a year and a half after her accident, Pitt began to rediscover her passion for one of the things she loves most. With the encouragement of her doctor, therapist and family, she returned to the classroom this year, which she says has lifted her spirits in ways nothing else could have.

"It's really been the most wonderful thing for me to come back to work," says Pitt. "First of all, I've re-entered the world that way and I can participate in the world. Staying at home in bed is not a particularly interesting future. And I love teaching. I love printmaking and I have a really wonderful time with the students, so I look forward to it."

No-nonsense lady

Students in Pitt's "Advanced and Graduate Printmaking" class say they don't even notice the wheelchair anymore.

Corie Johnson, a senior majoring in art, remembers Pitt telling her students on the first day of classes that despite the chair, "anything you might have heard about me is all still true."

Indeed, Pitt's reputation often precedes her, a reputation as a straightforward, tough-as-nails teacher who will always push her students to bring out the best in them, and whose students love her for it.

"She's great, she's really involved and she always has plenty of constructive criticism," says Jacob Biggerstaff, a senior art major.

Many of Pitt's students say they see her return to the classroom as inspirational and courageous.

"I think she's brave for doing it. A whole lot of people wouldn't have gone on like that, and she did," says senior Kevin Hamrock.

But it wasn't always clear that Pitt would teach again. In fact, she didn't think she would be able to come back after the accident. It was the persistent encouragement and support from her husband, sons and daughter that eventually changed her mind.

She's starting off slow. She taught one class in the fall and another in the spring. And her style in the classroom has had to change somewhat. Because she can't move her arms and hands, she can no longer do demonstrations for the class or point to specific areas of students' artwork when critiquing it.

"I have had to become very descriptive about what I'm talking about," Pitt says.

She now has a classroom assistant, a former student of hers who works with the UA's Disability Resource Center, who helps her give demonstrations, hang artwork on the walls and take attendance.

As for any changes in student behavior toward Pitt, the chair does at times seem to command a level of respect that wasn't always as easy to get before, she says.

"I must say, they're very attentive. If I say, ‘I have something to talk to you about,' they immediately quiet down," she said.

Pitt says the School of Art has been incredibly supportive of her return.

"I was amazed. I'm just blown away," says Dennis Jones, director of the school. "She was really spunky about the whole thing. She's certainly a dedicated teacher and the fact that she loves to teach and is doing it again shows there's life after tragic circumstances."

Jones credits Pitt's creative spirit and unwavering determination with helping her to "make lemonade from lemons."

Back to the drawing board

That same creative spirit made it impossible for Pitt to stay away from her own artwork for long. She has started to create prints again with the help of a computer tool that allows her to work with her limited mobility.

Because Pitt's injury is what's called "incomplete," meaning the spinal cord was bruised and stretched but not severed, there is a possibility that she may regain some or all of her mobility one day.

She already has some movement back in her left arm and hand, enough that she can make tiny scribbles on a Wacom tablet, an electronic device that allows the user to sketch with a stylus on the tablet while looking at the image on a computer screen. 

When the design looks the way she likes it, it's printed out and, with the help of an assistant, made into an etching on a plate used to produce the final print.

Pitt's prints, which used to be mostly about horses, are now primarily a reflection of her quadriplegia. Two of them are currently in a show in California, while another is part of a two-year touring exhibition by The Boston Printmakers association and two more are expected to be part of a show in Bulgaria.  

After the accident, Pitt's old home art studio was converted into an office, and she now works in a smaller room with the computer. It was one of many renovations to the house that needed to take place, including building ramps to the home's entrances and widening some of the interior doorways to fit a wheelchair, installing a handicap accessible bathroom and setting up a special hospital bed that rocks slightly to allow Pitt's body to move and prevent bedsores.

Pitt's husband of 23 years, Lynn Schroeder, a retired UA art professor, has been there every step of the way.

"He's been incredible. He tries not to spoil me, luckily, but he's completely there to take over the housework, the shopping, finances. Whatever needs to be done, he's there, and he's really devoting himself to me. It's very moving actually," Pitt says.

Small steps forward

When Pitt's not in the classroom or her workspace, she's often in physical therapy. Twice a week she goes to appointments at St. Joseph's Hospital. Three days a week, therapists come to her home. She's also started to get acupuncture treatments to see how they might affect her body's healing process.

In the morning and afternoon, she has caretakers who help her with showering, dressing, eating and getting to campus.

She sold her horse.

Pitt and her husband often spend Saturday nights with fellow UA art professor and personal friend Andrew Polk, who visits with his wife to talk with the couple and help make dinner. Moira Geoffrion, another UA art professor, also visits often to provide encouragement.

Polk, who has worked with Pitt since 1984, said she has an enormous amount of willpower and when he learned she was going back to work thought, "If anyone can do it, she can."

That same willpower is what helped Pitt during a recent physical therapy appointment. During a session last month, she stood up for the first time. With the help of braces, and someone to lean on, Pitt was able to take her first small steps since the accident.

They are just the first of many steps she still plans to take.

"I've always been a very forward-looking person, so I try not to actually think too much about the incident and just look forward to when I'm healthy again and when I'm able to move again," Pitt says. "I'm very grateful I didn't die that day. For a little while I wished I had, but now I'm very grateful."

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