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Wheelchair-Bound Gulden Still Remains Hopeful

Growing up in central Pennsylvania, Kris Gulden watched Angie Dickinson in "Police Woman" on TV and decided to be a police officer, too.

And she made it. She moved to Centreville and worked on midnight patrol for the City of Alexandria. In her spare time, she ran, swam and competed in triathlons. Always eager to help others, she volunteered for the annual, Tanqueray AIDS ride in Washington, D.C., and rode her bike regularly to prepare.

But on May 26, 1998, Gulden was struck by a car while she was riding in Herndon on the Fairfax County Parkway. "The driver was looking over his shoulder, about to merge, and didn't see me in front of him," she said. "He was charged with failure to pay full time and attention and was later found not guilty."

But Gulden didn't get off as easily as did the driver. From then on, her life was radically changed — suddenly filled with surgeries, medication and pain. Four years have passed since then: Gulden, 35, is no longer a police officer and, instead of riding a bike, she gets around by wheelchair.

The accident bruised and displaced her spinal cord. "They said, 'You'll never walk again,'" said Gulden. "But after six weeks, I started to get some movement back in my legs and, by Christmas 1998, I was walking with a rolling walker."

However, her progress was short-lived. In September 1999, she noticed her left hand was getting weak. She underwent a series of tests, including a myelogram to check the cerebrospinal fluid — but that procedure weakened her hand further.

Doctors discovered that Gulden had a syrinx — a post-traumatic cyst — in her spinal cord. They did an MRI to show its size, but couldn't remove it because it had grown inside the spinal cord. Surgery relieved pressure on the cord but, unfortunately, left Gulden without leg function — and that, she said, was "the worst part of the accident."

But she didn't stop living — she just learned to do it differently, although it certainly required many major adjustments. First, she finished up her job. "I'd worked 3 1/2 years when I had the accident, and I went back to work with the police department in November 1998," said Gulden. But this time, she had a desk job, doing administrative work in the personnel-and-training section.

She worked part time until November 1999, when the syrinx and her weakening left hand forced her to retire, under the City of Alexandria's disabilities plan, after five years total service. After being an active patrol officer, she said, "I have no interest in a desk job with the police. Even to go back to the City of Alexandria is difficult — every street brings back memories."

Another surgery followed in January 2000, and Gulden then spent all that month in rehabilitation at Mount Vernon Hospital. "I had to re-learn balance because the rods stabilizing my spinal column had been taken out," she explained. "I had to learn things like bathing and grooming, without the use of my legs, as well as transferring from bed to wheelchair."

A syrinx is a rare complication of a spinal-cord injury, but it resulted in still more operations until, by April 2000, Gulden had undergone seven surgeries. "I really felt like it was the end of the world," she said. But time, the support of family and friends and "a good dog" — her yellow lab, Shamu — helped see her through.

Neighbors check in on her regularly, and she gets her groceries delivered. And although "it's a drag in rain and snow," she's able to drive; she just takes her wheelchair apart and tosses it in the back seat.

Gulden volunteers with a Centreville Brownie troop, every other Monday, and participates in their activities and projects. She also plans to mentor at an elementary school in Arlington, advising fifth-grade girls about physical fitness, nutrition and smoking-prevention.

Each month, she goes to Inova Fairfax Hospital for a meeting of those who've sustained spinal-cord injuries, and she and other former trauma patients speak to nursing and social-work students at colleges, telling them "what it's like to live with a traumatic injury and how nurses and social workers helped us."

Gulden also enjoys reading, getting together with friends and "hanging out with Shamu." She also keeps herself in as good a physical condition as possible. For an hour, twice a week, she rides a stationary bike that uses electrical stimulation to move her leg muscles.

She also has a glider, similar to a cross-country skiing machine, that she uses three days a week. And she participates in therapeutic horseback riding, once a week, in Great Falls. As if all that weren't enough, twice a week, she also attends physical therapy.

Gulden remains optimistic that, perhaps, her current physical state won't be permanent: "There's research going on that I hope will be translated to improvement in human function." Meanwhile, she travels to Miami to undergo biofeedback treatment to try to reestablish the connection between her brain and her paralyzed leg muscles.

Friend Jim Clark started a May Day 5K race in her honor, and the fourth-annual one was May 4 at Cameron Run Regional Park in Alexandria. Some 700 people participated — most of them strangers to Gulden — and, she said, "It's really an amazing feeling to know how truly generous people are."

The event raises awareness of spinal-cord injuries, plus money toward Gulden's ongoing medical bills amounting to thousands of dollars a year. Her bike and glider together cost $17,000, and her $500/month physical-therapy expenses are not covered by insurance. In addition, a month of biofeedback treatment costs several thousand dollars.

Nationally, she's interested in the Kennedy/Feinstein/Specter/Hatch bill which could help her and others. It will be debated and voted on in Congress, the end of May, and Gulden urges area residents to call their U.S. senators and ask them to support it.

"It would allow therapeutic cloning — the ability to use stem cells for curing diseases and disabilities," she said. Gulden also urges people with illnesses or disabilities to speak up and advocate for themselves "in whatever arena is necessary."

Since her accident, Gulden's life has changed in myriad ways. She's learned patience, perseverance and "the value of good relationships." She realized that she "couldn't just run out and do everything on my own when I want to" and, instead, sometimes has to ask for help.

Her left hand is still weak and, since she was a lefty, she had to teach herself to be right-handed. "I had to learn to write, brush my teeth, feed myself and do everything with my right hand," she said. But she still keeps moving her left hand, "hoping it'll open up new pathways in the brain so I can use that hand more."

Gulden advises others with disabilities to maintain their sense of humor. "Find a way to laugh at things and have fun," she said. "Do the best you can with what you have — there are always people who have it worse off than you do."