Hilary-M.jpgThis post is part of the series 14 Questions, featuring interviews with disability advocates regarding their work and insights into the Complex Rehab Technology (CRT) industry. In our latest post, Numotion Director of Advocacy Strategy, Justin Richardson interviews Hilary Muehlberger, Ms. Wheelchair America 2020 and Numotion Medical Supplies Account Manager.

Richardson: Please tell us a bit about your story. How were you injured and when did your injury occur?

Muehlberger: I was 23 years old and I was out drinking at a bar where I worked. We all decided to leave the bar and go back to a friend’s house. I decided I had more to drink than was safe to drive and asked my friend if I could ride with him and he agreed. Unfortunately, he had also been drinking. We made it about a block and a half away from the bar and turned into a neighborhood where he drove us directly into a house doing 50mph. Fortunately, we hit the foundation and stopped immediately instead of driving through the house. I broke almost all of my ribs, punctured a lung, broke both of my legs, and broke my back in 3 places. I sustained a T12 incomplete spinal cord injury as my vertebra shot through it like shrapnel. The driver shattered his elbow and sustained a massive cut to his head from his forehead to his crown. 

Richardson: Where did you undergo your initial rehab and how long were you there? Please tell us about your experience.

Muehlberger: I was rushed to Overland Park Regional Hospital where I stayed for 2 weeks. From there I went to Mid-America Rehabilitation Hospital for another 2 weeks. I was uninsured, as was the driver in the accident so I was unable to stay any longer than that. I continued to do outpatient physical therapy at Mid-America where I met some lifelong friends who taught me how to live my life from my chair. I was angry and confused and also trying to stay strong for the people around me. My therapists were understanding, but tough. They pushed me past my comfort zone and for that I am eternally grateful.

Richardson: Dealing with a new injury or diagnosis is hard for the individual injured/diagnosed, but those of us experiencing such a situation often fail to recognize the impact it has on those closest to us until our lives have settled much later on. How did your family/those closest to you respond to your injury?

Muehlberger: This is a HUGE topic of gratitude in my story. My mom NEVER left my side. She slept on an air mattress on the floor of the hospital, rehab, and then the extended stay we moved to when we were looking for accessible housing. She almost lost her business and marriage while focused on taking care of me. She and my stepdad would trade shifts staying with me. My dad would come to visit at 5am every morning before he went to work, usually swiping me a chocolate ice cream from the nurses’ station on the way in. I had an outpouring of love from my friends and extended family. I was NEVER alone, even when I wanted to be alone. I am not sure where I would be without their love and support.

Richardson: Are the majority of those people still in your life today?

Muehlberger: My family will always stick by my side. Most of my friends dropped off when I decided I wanted to drastically change my lifestyle. I became sober on Feb 10, 2017. My friends were still out drinking and partying and I couldn’t live my life that way. They became increasingly uncomfortable being around me and eventually we lost contact. They do reach out to see how I am occasionally, but I have new friends and a new support system I wouldn’t trade for the world.

Richardson: What advice or words of wisdom would the Hilary of today say to the Hilary you were just after your injury?

Muehlberger: Be kind, not only to yourself but to the ones around you. I was so angry in the beginning, feeling as if I had lost all freedoms. Everything I had worked for was gone in the blink of an eye. I took a lot of that out on the people around me - nurses, ATPs, and my family. Since then I have had the opportunity to make amends with those people and some of them are my co-workers now. I later learned that type of behavior to be a fairly normal response after suffering a trauma.

Richardson: What is one thing you would like people to know about life with a disability? One thing specific to life with a spinal cord injury?

Muehlberger: It is still very much a life worth living. I live a more fulfilling life today than I could have ever hoped for before my injury. I have a community of people that I didn’t have before, I get to participate with this community on a peer level. It has completely changed my perspective on life and I will be grateful for my injury every day because I choose to see the beauty in it.

Richardson: You’re the current Ms. Wheelchair America. Please tell us about your experience competing for and winning the crown.

Muehlberger: I NEVER expected to win. NEVER. When I met all of the other women at nationals I was overcome by their strength and compassion. I really was just excited to learn from them and take what I learned and apply it back home. When they announced I was in the top five I thought they had made a mistake, I couldn’t even get through my speech because I was so jolted. When I won, I sat there with this crazy look of surprise while Karen Roy, Ms. Wheelchair America 2019, was waiting for me to come over to be crowned. It has been an honor to serve as Ms. Wheelchair America 2020 and it has opened so many doors for me, but the best part is I expanded my community nation-wide. I have friends all over the nation that I can reach out to no matter the time or the subject and they are there for me. I have learned more from my peers than I ever anywhere else.

Richardson: Is there anyone you have met since winning the title that has had a profound impact on your life or the way you see the world? If so, who was that person and why was their impact significant?

Muehlberger: Jen Heusing. She is one of my physical therapists (PT) and a dear friend. She takes so much of her free time to research different methods and make the seemingly impossible, possible. She has had me on a Pilates table doing workouts and also in the pool. She has even taught me how to get in and out safely so I can go to the pool with my family. We meet up regularly to grab breakfast and catch up. She is so much more than a PT to me.

Richardson: Not only are you Ms. Wheelchair America, but we are also proud to claim you as a Numotion Medical Supply employee. What do you believe to be the best part of your job at Numotion?

Muehlberger: As a Numotion employee, I have the opportunity to educate clients on the importance of developing a bowel and bladder program that works for them, not the other way around. This provides strength, confidence, and freedom for our clients. Our level of independence is directly impacted by our bowel
and bladder programs and I am honored to have the privilege to be a part of this experience. 

Richardson: Those who use wheelchairs often have mixed feelings about their mobility equipment. Do you have conflicting feelings as well and if so, what are they?

Muehlberger: There are certainly days that I get frustrated with my chair. Loading it in and out of my car, trying to cook in the kitchen and not being able to see inside of a pot on the stove, or needing to get to the restroom quickly. It can be infuriating at times but I have learned so much about how to navigate day to day life in my chair. Should something go wrong I know I can contact Numotion and they will do whatever they can to ensure I am taken care of. Even before I became a Numotion employee, I worked with Paul Wilkie, (one of our ATPs in Kansas City) and he was always available to answer my questions and problem solve. I also would work with my physical therapists to learn how to get myself out of bad situations. For example, if I fall, what is the best way to get back in my chair? If someone has to lift me to get me upstairs, what is the best way for them to carry me? How do I advocate and use my voice to tell people what I am and am not comfortable with? People don’t know what they don’t know. If you have a problem, I highly suggest reaching out to someone with experience to assist in finding the best possible solution.

Richardson: What mobility-related equipment advancement or advancements would you like to see come to market in the next 5 years?

Muehlberger: I hope there are more products available that showcase the person rather than the chair. A wheelchair is hard to miss, and often times the chair is the only thing people see. We all spend time and money to find the right clothes to present ourselves the way we want to be received. Why would we always want to be in a chair that showcases a brand or a specific build when we could utilize a chair that presents the person first?

Richardson: July of this year will mark the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). What does the ADA mean to you?

Muehlberger: The ADA means freedom for so many people. We are employable, we are capable, and we deserve the same accessibility that is taken for granted by so many. It truly gives us something to fight for and has fueled my journey of becoming a more effective advocate.

Richardson: I think most would agree that the times in which we are currently living are strange indeed. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to alter our reality, do you have concerns specific to your injury or the need for mobility equipment that able-bodied individuals may not consider?

Muehlberger: I am receiving calls daily from customers who are concerned about having the necessary medical supplies they need to stay out of the ER and ensure their health. We are in near-constant contact with our suppliers to ensure everyone is receiving the catheter supplies they need. As a person who uses a chair, it is so important and impactful to me that we are doing everything we can to ensure our customers continue to meet their daily needs with dignity. I know these are uncertain times, but it is important to remain in a positive mindset. Check-in on someone else in a chair, ask how they are, and listen to what they have to say. We are not going through this alone and it is important we come out of this as a stronger community.

Richardson: If our readers would like to learn more about you and follow you on your journey, what would be the best ways for them to do so?

Muehlberger: Follow me on Facebook @mwa2020 or Instagram and Twitter @_mwa2020
Justin Richardson, Executive Director of the Numotion Foundation


Justin Richardson, Executive Director of the Numotion Foundation

Justin Richardson is a manual wheelchair user of seventeen years and thirteen-year veteran of the seating and mobility industry. He has deep perspective and experience as a former ATP, operations manager, communications and customer experience leader. Currently Justin also serves as the Executive Director of the Numotion Foundation and sits on the Board of the North Carolina Spinal Cord Injury Association.