Recently, KETV aired one of the most powerful stories of my career.
Do I have your attention?
In my 13 years here at KETV, I’ve seen some incredible things and been honored to share some amazing stories. There are a handful that will always stick with me. Derek Ruth, a teenager who suffered a traumatic brain injury on the junior high football field, sharing profound lessons much wiser than his 13 years. Clayton Hildreth, losing his face and parts of his body to a fire as a toddler, overcoming all challenges to become an Eagle Scout as a young man. Kayla Wilkins, a teenager who I never got to meet, though the love of her family and their grief after her death in a car crash, shook me to my core.
2014. Add Gina Giaffoglione, excuse me, Gina Springhower, to that list.
Let’s state the obvious. GINA. IS. GORGEOUS. (Sorry, John, but your bride steals the show in this picture!)
I’m biased, having met and spoken with this incredible woman, but you can almost see through their engagement photo the sheer joy, happiness, and positive energy that spreads from Gina.
What you can’t see in this picture is that Gina is paralyzed from the belly button down.
It hasn’t always been that way. Gina grew up in her dad Gary’s tumbling center in Glenwood, Iowa. As the only girl and the youngest, Gina and Gary were athletes together, always in the gym.
March 22, 2008, Gina was in Wayne, Nebraska. The car Gina was in flipped. She was partially ejected and partially pinned. The crash broke Gina’s back and changed her life.
Meeting Gina more than six years later, I wonder if she ever grieved for what she lost or allowed herself to be swallowed by self pity or sadness. It’s really hard for me to picture because as you’ll see in our story, Gina is RADIANT. She never stops smiling, never stops lifting up those around her. When I asked her about the decision that sparked our story, she said it happened the day after her accident, March 23, 2008. The moment Gina decided paralysis or not, someday, she was going to walk down the aisle.
Fast forward to December 14, 2012.
Gina had reconnected with a guy she knew in high school, John Springhower.
“He was a senior when I was a freshman, so he was just that older, hot guy I just kind of looked at when he walked through,” Gina told me, of course, with a smile on her face. “I never would’ve had a chance with him because I had braces and.. it was just a disaster!”
The guy who led Gina and John to each other.. her dad, Gary. And on a surprise date right before Christmas, John proposed.
“He’s taken on this whole disability thing like a champ,” said Gina. “He’s just that wonderful guy, that he doesn’t see the chair. He just sees me for me and forgets about how I get around.”
Gina said yes, on one condition. Their wedding would have to wait.
Almost immediately after Gina’s accident, she turned to physical therapists and support groups at CHI Health Rehabilitation at Immanuel Medical Center. She made friendships and inspired nearly everyone she came in contact with, and over time, learned exactly what she wanted: to maintain her independence. Alegent Creighton, now CHI Health, even profiled Gina in September of 2009.
Physical Therapist Diana Palm was working with Gina when she met John, and was there the first time Gina returned to therapy after her engagement.
“She shows up, day one, and she’s like, ‘I’m getting married. I have to walk 90 feet. With just my Dad. On one crutch. In grass. In a big dress.”
What was once a dream was now a goal. Gina was going to walk down the aisle.
August of this year, I pulled up to Immanuel’s Rehabilitation Center for a story shoot. We were meeting a paralyzed young woman, in therapy three days a week, trying to learn how to walk down the aisle for her wedding. I walked into the huge room, filled with patients, family, friends and therapists, and immediately saw a stunning brunette, with a thousand-watt smile, warmly welcoming me to her session. By this point, Gina had been working toward this for more than a year. After sitting for so many years, Gina spent months in therapy just to stretch her body tall again. Every accomplishment meant more work, more therapy. Sitting to standing. Standing to a walker. From a walker to a forearm crutch. Walking in tulle to get used to moving in a dress.
“I mean, I’ve had days where I’m like, this isn’t going to work! I’ve been working at all this for nothing!” said Gina. Gina says John, close friends and her family propelled her to keep going. Her biggest inspiration was also right at her side; her dad, Gary.
“[This walk] is our moment. That’s the last time that I’m a Giaffoglione and I’m on his arm,” said Gina. “He deserves it.”
“I told her whether we roll down that aisle, or whether we walk down that aisle, we’re gonna do this,” said Gary. “Whichever way we have to do it, it’s been her dream. Obviously, it’s a Dad’s dream of having the honor of walking your daughter down the aisle.”
Gary joined Gina at therapy for the last several months, working on every, single detail. Helping Gina stand. Locking her brace. Right step, left step, too far, stop!! Turn.. slower.. hold hands, step again. Gary, his hand clenched tightly around his daughter’s, stared straight forward with a mix of pride and intense concentration on his face. Gina positively glowed; grinning ear to ear with every step. Joking with her therapists, looking at her feet and the reflection in the mirror of herself on her dad’s arm.
I stood in the corner of the center, holding back tears and trying to ‘remain professional’, in awe of what I was witnessing. I also thought, wow, these two have been here, over and over, several days a week, at home, at the venue, inside, outside, all for ONE MOMENT.
“If she’s doing it for us, or she’s doing it for herself, she’ll never tell us,” said Gary. “She always has that big smile on her face, so we don’t know. All I know is we’re gonna do it together, and we’re gonna love the moment.”
And here’s the catch… the Giaffogliones knew about Gina’s goal. John knew. Their close friends knew. To the rest of Gina’s guests, this dream becoming a reality, was a moment NO ONE ELSE KNEW ABOUT before the wedding.
Even Gina and Gary, who planned and worked so hard for months, were anxious about how everything would go… on grass.. on a hill.. in front of guests.
“There’s so much to it,” said Gina. “It’s going to be kind of crazy and I think, when it’s over, it’s gonna be like, AAAAAH, LET’S EAT SOME CAKE!”
September 13, 2014. The day Gina would walk down the aisle.
This is where I stop. Yup, that’s all you get for now. Because despite 13 years in television news writing stories, nothing I can type out will adequately describe what happened that beautiful Saturday in Pacific Junction, Iowa. Thanks to photojournalists Dave Hynek, Ashley Nodgaard and Tyler White, you can witness it for yourself.
I truly hope you make time to watch this one. It will take your breath away, and leave you in tears. Happy tears.
Gina is a reminder that fairy tales can become reality, dreams can come true. And since I don’t have the words, I will leave you with Gina’s.
“I look at it as I might be having a bad day, but I’m HAVING a day. I’m here. I’m having a day. This walk down the aisle might not be what I always envisioned it would be, but we’re having a walk down the aisle. It’s happening. You’re here. You’re blessed. And if I can help somebody in some way to maybe look at their life a little bit differently and be blessed to have their own day, that’s why I’m having a day in my eyes.”