June 26, 2010 7:15:00 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
LeAnn Shelton made up her mind a very long time ago it''s better to laugh than cry about what can''t be changed. And please don''t tell her there''s anything she can''t do. The 28-year-old Reform, Ala., woman has been proving that wrong since losing her left arm in a riding mower accident when she was 4 years old.
Whether as starting pitcher and leading hitter on the Pickens County High School softball team in her teens, or playing centerfield on her church team this summer at Propst Park in Columbus, LeAnn is a walking, running, inspiring testimony to the power of the human spirit.
"As a player I never saw myself as being disabled in the least," the bright-eyed blonde said. "Whatever my teammates did, I could do. It may have been a little different, but I got it done."
Her former high school coach, Lee Gibson, knows that as well as anyone.
"I''ve coached for 13 years, mainly football, and I did softball; LeAnn''s competitive spirit is more than anybody I''ve ever been around. She played first base, she played outfield, she was (fast pitch) pitcher, without a glove. Her heart and desire are outstanding."
For LeAnn, who took up the game at age 6, softball has been, in its way, a saving grace -- an outlet for her indomitable drive, and, above all, an opportunity to be "just like everyone else."
"My family never showed me special treatment just because I had one arm. I never wanted it. ... I don''t even remember having two arms; this is all I''ve ever known."
The horrific day was June 19, 1986. LeAnn and her brother, Bobby Sanders, then 11, were staying at their grandmother''s while their mother, Deborah, worked at the garment plant in Kennedy, Ala. Their father, James, was a cross-country truck driver at the time, out on the road.
"Our cousin was cutting grass with a riding lawn mower; I was outside playing. Somehow I fell and was run over by the mower. I threw up my left arm to cover my face, and that''s what stalled the mower," the young woman relays with composed candor. She''s had to retell the story many times before.
"My brother was the one who picked up the mower off of me and had to unravel my left arm from the blade. I consider him my hero," she professed.
In the harrowing chaos that followed as a frightened little girl, her arm wrapped in towels, was rushed to the emergency room in Carrollton, Ala., by her grandparents, LeAnn remembers one thing vividly -- Bobby''s face looking over from the back seat, telling her to hang in there.
"I was so sleepy from the loss of blood; he kept telling me don''t go to sleep, telling me I needed to stay awake."
At the hospital, blood transfusions and doctors'' care weren''t enough to repair the extensive damage inflicted by unforgiving steel.
"For my family the minutes turned into hours and the days seemed like weeks as I lay in intensive care, not knowing if I would make it," recalled LeAnn. "The fact that I had lost my left arm didn''t sink in until I woke up and asked my mom where my arm was."
Deborah, who quit her job to care for her daughter, "has been my rock," said LeAnn. "She''s the strongest person I know besides God."
In the accident''s aftermath, the Sanders were tested as they''d never been before. The ordeal was especially difficult for Bobby. But with the help of therapy and what LeAnn is sure was the grace of God, they have emerged changed, but essentially whole. She learned that pain can eventually be endured. She learned that children can be cruel, and how to weather it. She learned that stares can be tolerated, when you''re strong within yourself.
"We always want to ask why things happen. But I feel God has a plan for everyone, and there''s a reason for everything. We may not ever know what that reason is, but I believe the plan for each of us is like fingerprints; no one has the same."
No holding back
"Anything I ever wanted to try or do, my mom and dad said, ''Go for it,''" LeAnn smiled. She''s applied that attitude to every challenge. She was on a raccoon hunt, in fact, when she met her future husband, Jeremy Shelton.
"I didn''t think I''d have a chance with that woman," grinned Jeremy, giving his wife a playful, flirting look. Married now four years, the B.F. Goodrich tire builder supports her in anything she wants to conquer, including deer hunting and fishing.
"I love bass fishing!" LeAnn declared. She reels them in using an adapted leather deep sea fishing belt, with added suspenders, a pipe fitting to hold her pole and an array of small tools. "I wish I had the money to patent this belt I made," she laughed.
Throughout the years, prosthetic limbs were tried, and abandoned. "In elementary school, I''d come home with my arm in my bookbag," she said. "My parents finally said if you feel confident without it, OK."
Jeremy added, "She''s got one now that just sits on the end of the bed."
"I feel I can do more without it than with it," his wife responds.
One of her favorite experiences was working as a physical therapy technician in Carrollton, offering unique insight to patients suffering temporary or permanent physical challenges. "I loved it," she said. "The best feeling of all is to see someone who comes in a wheelchair and leaves walking."
Might as well laugh
Those who don''t know this determined young woman well are sometimes startled by the sense of humor she directs on herself.
"Sometimes they think I put myself down, but it''s better to laugh," she''s decided. While playing softball last year, a teammate remarked before a game that they were going to be short-handed.
"I told her it was OK because I was short-handed every day," chuckled LeAnn.
"Your faith will outlast the pain and grief you feel sometimes. Even though my situation is permanent, that doesn''t mean I have to throw my hands up -- I mean, hand -- and give up!" she grinned.
Her spiritual strength is bolstered by her church home, Columbus Christian Center, where she and Jeremy attend. She even likens faith to softball: "Your faith in God must be real. You should be able to throw it and, most of all, catch it."
That core of faith is complemented by LeAnn''s tenacity and perseverance.
"I love a competition," she asserted. "I love a good challenge, especially if they say, ''No, you can''t do that.'' ''Can''t'' is not in my vocabulary."
Jeremy praised, "She''s something. There''s nothing she can''t do."
Well, maybe just a few things. Her husband has become pretty adept, LeAnn admits, at putting her hair up in a ponytail and at cutting up tomatoes. And maybe a few other household chores, "that I wouldn''t want to do even if I had two arms," she laughed.
Whether on the field of play, or just tying her shoes, LeAnn Shelton doesn''t back down from looking her life in the eye.
"Tomorrow is never promised. We have to be blessed with what we do have," she believes. "Life''s a mountain and the challenge is climbing it. In the end, it''s the climb that counts."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.