Woman lobbies, volunteers to help handicapped

1/19/2003 10:37 pm

/Photo courtesy Jesse Hunter
Tiffany Hunter, 23, of Stagecoach, was paralyzed in 1998 after falling off a cliff. Tristan has been her service dog for two years.

Tiffany Hunter moved like a comet through the Lyon County School system.

Taking advantage of all the opportunities a rural district has to offer, she was singled out as a leader in grade school, elected high school class president and homecoming queen - following her sister by one year - and lettered in basketball, volleyball and track.

She was selected as a delegate to Girls State, graduated from Dayton High School in June 1997 and headed to Feather River College to play volleyball.

On March 1, 1998, Hunter, her boyfriend and two friends were hiking near the college in Quincy, Calif.

"It was the first nice day after a lot of snow," she said. "We were hiking and it was muddy and I guess I slipped."

Hunter fell 167 feet off a cliff face first into the river. She remembers the hike but not the fall or anything until about two months after the accident.

"She was very lucky she landed in the river and not on the ground," said her mother, Carol Hunter.
A chain of events followed that Carol Hunter calls miraculous.

"Her boyfriend saw her fall and jumped 50 feet into the river and flipped her over," she said. "There was an emergency medical technician hiking in the area with her family who was able to help. The water was really, really cold, but that turned out to be a blessing because it slowed down the bleeding."

A friend ran a mile back to the trail and called for help. It took almost four hours for rescuers to bring Hunter out of the area. There was no place to land the helicopter, so it hovered over the water as she was lifted out of the river in a makeshift gurney. Hunter was raced to a hospital in Chico, Calif. Her parents arrived at 3 a.m. and by then, Tiffany had undergone three hours of surgery.

"They said the back of her head was like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. Other than that, there isn't a scratch on her," Carol Hunter said.

Hunter suffered injuries to her brain and spinal cord which left her confined to a wheelchair and limited to the use of her left hand. She spent several months in a hospital and a rehabilitation facility before returning home.

That drive to excel that served her in high school continues to motivate Hunter, 23.

"You just do what you can do," she said with a little shrug. "I am still active, just in a different way."

Hunter takes two classes via the Internet at
University of Nevada, Reno, and Truckee Meadows Community College and is looking at a computer major.

"At this rate, it is going to take a long time," she laughed.

Her father, Jesse, is a computer programmer for the state and her sister Tracy, 24 attends McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento.

Hunter is active with a New Beginnings, a group of
disabled adults based in Carson City.

"We're going skiing," she said.

Other plans include lobbying at the Nevada Legislature for more handicap accessibility.

"There are a lot of places that you can't get into with a wheelchair," she said.

Hunter is a passionate advocate for the Lyon County Animal Services in Silver Springs and works 15 hours a week for the shelter. Through her participation in a Carson City vocational rehabilitation program, she created a job for herself making posters to promote dog adoption.

"My mom takes the pictures on a digital camera and I take the disk and fix the posters on my computer at home," she said. "Then, I take the posters and hang them up in Mound House, Silver Springs, Stagecoach and Dayton."

Through her efforts a few dogs have been adopted and one or two reunited with their owners.

"She's our angel," said shelter supervisor Dan Rogers.

"I wish I could adopt them all," Hunter said.
Her heart belongs to a golden retriever/Labrador mix named Tristan, trained as a service dog by an agency that places dogs with disabled people.

"If I drop something, he picks it up for me," she said. "He holds bags for me and pushes handicapped door openers. He is a super companion and he's always by my side."

Carol Hunter said Tristan also serves as an icebreaker.

"When we first would go out, people would just stare," she said. "Now, when they see Tristan, they will come up and talk to Tiffany when they might otherwise have not known what to say."
Hunter said she feels lucky to be alive.

"Everyone has bad days, but I never had a day when I said to myself, 'I will not do anything,'" she said. "I write to my friends through e-mail, I work at the shelter, I go to school and I stay busy."

Carol Hunter said doctors have never suggested that Tiffany had limits in her recovery.

"They said Tiffany is like a speeding bullet and she hasn't stopped yet," she said.