Elizabeth Dunn

Written by Jessica Boddy
Photos by Theodore Schwarz
March 29, 2015

Elizabeth Dunn was like any other college student who didn’t have the entire road ahead mapped out, until life steered her toward an alternate track.

A car crash during Dunn’s junior year of college redirected her career path. While her initial destination was a career in pharmacy, she’s now in her first year of Pitt’s nutrition and dietetics master’s degree program and pursuing a coordinated master's degree in nutrition and dietetics.

The reroute began while she was an undergraduate at Gannon University and asleep in the back seat of a vehicle that another car struck.

“The guy that was driving ran a stop sign, and another car hit us,” Dunn said. “I woke up so confused.”

Dunn had sustained a C6 incomplete spinal cord injury. Because of the injury, she experiences some sensation, but has a limited range of movement in her arms and some of her core.

“My C5 vertebrae shattered, and [the doctors] had to take out all the pieces, so they put my neck back together with a bunch of metal,” Dunn said. “It’s pretty crazy what’s hanging out in there.”

Recovery from her injury required inpatient and outpatient rehab, and Dunn’s support system accelerated her through it, she said.

“A lot of my friends came and visited me every single day in the hospital, so that helped a lot,” Dunn said. “When I got down to Pittsburgh, there’s a lot of spinal cord injury support groups, so you meet people and they’ve been through the same thing. That helps, too.”

Dunn’s favorite way to stay active is to play the extremely high-contact sport of wheelchair rugby. She’s a member of the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers, a sporting organization for quadriplegics that has basketball and rugby teams.

Quadriplegic rugby is pretty intense,” Dunn said. “It’s a full-contact sport. When people first watch it, they’re shocked.

Before the crash, Dunn was active in sports like snowboarding and soccer in her hometown of Warren, Pa. Now, she still kayaks, cycles, skis, lifts and rows without the use of her legs.

Besides the frustration of performing daily tasks like getting ready in the morning and taking notes in class, Dunn said she also faces a compromised sense of freedom, like the need to request rides to any place she wants to go.

In a month, she’ll receive her first adapted vehicle — a modified Mazda3 hatchback — whose system will aid her steering and push/pull for the gas and the brake.

“I can’t wait,” Dunn said. “I used to drive all the time, and now it’s like, ‘Can someone take me? I want to go here!’ And now, with my own car, I can.”

The lifestyle changes that came with Dunn’s injury fueled her new career path.

After gaining a few extra credits at the Community College of Allegheny County, she was accepted to Pitt’s nutrition and dietetics undergraduate program as a junior in 2012. She now wants to become a registered dietician.

“After my injury, I realized because I was in good shape, I recovered a lot better,” Dunn said. “Making sure people stay at a healthy weight is good, especially after traumatic injuries. I’m hoping to work with adaptive sports.”

For Dunn, Pitt was the obvious choice to continue her education. The accessible buildings like Forbes Tower, an excellent nutrition and dietetics program and the presence of UPMC spinal cord doctors made her decision to attend much easier.

After a stellar academic performance in her undergraduate career, Dunn gained admission to Pitt’s master’s program, as well as a full-tuition scholarship for her two years in graduate school from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation. The foundation supports research and rehabilitation for those with spinal cord injuries. Dunn said the scholarship goes to a select group of four to five students.

Despite the initial accident, Dunn has stayed motivated with her eyes looking ahead.

“A lot of bad comes with the spinal cord injury, but some good comes out of it, too,” she said. “You have to take what you can get.”

Editor's Note: In a previous version of this article, The Pitt News reported that Dunn was pursuing a degree in adaptive sports. This is incorrect — she is pursuing a coordinated master’s degree in nutrition and dietetics. The Pitt News regrets this error.