Self-reliance in overdrive

Woman paralyzed in diving accident earns bachelor's degree

Wednesday, May 28, 2003
By Larry O'Connor
Staff Writer


# Nikki Goostrey hasn't let life in a wheelchair stop her from living.

As a recent college graduate, Nikki Goostrey saw her achievement no different than anyone else's. She views her life the same way.

"I'm still me," said Goostrey, 30, who earned a bachelor's degree in business from Siena Heights University this month. "I'm just sitting."

Nearly nine years ago, Goostrey was paralyzed and left in a wheelchair after a diving accident on White Lake in Henrietta Township.

The Jackson woman -- then 22 -- severely damaged her spinal cord in several places and spent 31/2 months at University of Michigan Hospital recovering.

Her sense of self-reliance, which was in place before the accident, was put into overdrive.

The 1990 East Jackson High School graduate was determined to go to college. In doing so, she overcame several hurdles, including another accident in which she was severely burned.

Prior to the diving mishap, Goostrey worked minimum-wage jobs and harbored no post-high school academic aspirations.

"When I got out of physical therapy, I knew being in a chair that there would be limited job opportunities," she said. "I knew I needed to expand my education."

In 1996, Goostrey enrolled at Jackson Community College, where she earned an associate's degree. She went on to Siena Heights, which has a satellite campus at JCC.

Goostrey maintained a 3.7 grade-point average and landed on the dean's list. She hopes to continue her education and get a master's degree in business.

Meanwhile, Goostrey intends to use her degree to open a business -- possibly a candy shop -- with her younger sister, Kelly, who also attends Siena Heights. Kelly is finishing up her last class to get her bachelor's degree in business.

During the past six years, the sisters have heavily leaned on each other.

Kelly wanted to seek a teaching major, but took business classes with her sister at Siena Heights and became hooked. She credited Nikki for furthering her education.

"I was stopping at my associate's of arts degree," Kelly said.

Their posse of study buddies at Siena grew to include what Nikki said are many lifetime friends.

"They see me as me," she said, "! and not my chair."

Her professors, unsure how to treat her at first, eventually saw her in the same light, which Goostrey appreciated.

Professor Barbara Priestley gave Goostrey an A-plus in a marketing management class. The stellar mark was one of only two the professor has given during her six-year teaching career. "She just flew by," Priestley said.

Goostrey never allowed her disability to become a classroom crutch, the professor said.

"She never even hinted at it," Priestley said. "After a while, you didn't even think about her being in a wheelchair.

"Nikki is Nikki."

While attending JCC, Nikki sustained third-degree burns on her left leg after she came in contact with an electric heater. Because she had no feeling in her lower limbs, she didn't realize the extent of her injuries.

Rather than miss school, she delayed getting skin grafts until the semester ended in the spring. She went to the UM Burn Hospital three times a week for treatment while attending classes.

Outside of college, the former high school varsity cheerleader remains active.

She works on numerous fund-raising projects for East Jackson Memorial School, where her nephew Bryan Goostrey, 11, is a student. She and other boosters are busy preparing for a school luau Friday.

She enjoys being with her two nephews, Trevor Minard, 3, and Bryan, and her niece, Jordan, 13 months.

"I've always been, day one after the accident, moving forward," she said. "You're either going to live your life or you're not. I chose to live my life.

"As a result, I've accomplished more than I ever thought I would."

-- Reach reporter Larry

O'Connor at 768-4926 or

loconnor@citpat.com.