KNIGHTDALE, N.C. — In 2010, the action of a friend changed Rachelle Friedman's life when an innocent push into a pool at her bachelorette party left her a quadriplegic.
Now a wife and an advocate for people with spinal cord injuries, she is hoping her life will be changed again by the actions of a friend — one who has agreed to carry her first child.
Rachelle, 28, plans to become a mother with the help of Laurel Humes, a friend she met while attending East Carolina University. Humes, 31, has agreed to serve as a gestational surrogate for Rachelle and her husband, Chris Chapman.
More than four years after her tragic accident and nearly three years after her idyllic wedding, Rachelle's life is going well. In the last three months, she has secured a surrogate, traveled to California for in vitro fertilization and released a book, "The Promise: A Tragic Accident, a Paralyzed Bride and the Power of Love, Loyalty and Friendship."
The ECU graduate will return to Greenville on Saturday for a reading, question-and-answer session and book signing.
A book was not part of the plan when Rachelle received her degree in recreation management in 2008. Before the accident that left her paralyzed from the chest down, she worked as a program assistant at a seniors activity center and taught aerobics and line dancing.
"I never enjoyed writing," Rachelle said in an interview at the Wake County home she shares with her husband and two dogs. "I never enjoyed having to write a paper, so it was really interesting that once I had something to say (I did)."
In "The Promise," which she wrote with former journalist and media consultant Stephanie Krikorian, Rachelle has a lot to say. The book, released in May, not only retells the events of the now-famous accident following her bachelorette party but also shares the love story that brought her there.
Rachelle met her very first boyfriend and the man who would become her husband during her freshman year at ECU, just before Halloween in 2004. Though she and Chris are both from Virginia Beach, and they would later learn that their paths had crossed many times, they never knew one another until both were off at college, 150 miles from home. The two were best friends long before any romance blossomed.
"My love story means so much to me, and everyone wanted the friend (bridesmaids) story," Rachelle said of the book, which originally was to be titled "The Pact," a reference to the fact that neither she nor her bridesmaids have ever disclosed the identity of the bridesmaid who pushed Rachelle into the pool.
"('The Pact') made it sound like we all sat around and did like some blood promise to each other or something," she said. "We didn't sit there beside the pool and say this out loud. ... ('The Promise') was supposed to mean not just my friends but also me and Chris."
"The Promise" does expound on the reasons behind the unspoken agreement to keep silent about the friend responsible for the push, a young woman who struggled with debilitating guilt and depression for years after the accident. In the book, the names of all the women who were by the pool the night of the accident have been altered.
"None of us has ever revealed the name of the girl who playfully pushed me that night, and none of us ever will," Rachelle wrote. "Protecting her has always been too important, her feelings too important, the situation too fragile and fraught with potential pain. Besides, it could have been any one of us."
As the media relentlessly pursued the woman's identity, the decision to withhold her friend's name proved, at times, to be a costly one. One magazine offered to pay Rachelle for the revelation, and she turned down an interview with Oprah Winfrey after being told the talk show host wanted the bridesmaid in question to come on the show, too.
Rachelle has learned to take both the criticism and the compliments in stride.
"I appreciate the compliments, I guess," she said. "People were like, 'That's so amazing of you not to say anything.' ... I think I've done a lot of amazing things, but not throwing my friend to the wolves while she was depressed is not one of them."
Since the accident, Rachelle, a former lifeguard and cheerleader, has taken up wheelchair rugby and hand cycling. She has learned to surf and to drive again. She also has become a motivational speaker and an advocate for others with spinal cord injuries.
Though Rachelle has had a chance to personally reach out to a fellow Knightdale resident who was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident, most of the encouragement she offers has been virtual.
"(People) sent letter after letter to my Facebook inbox and my email," she wrote. "... People wanted to relate to me and wrote things like 'My son had this happen to him,' or 'I am married to a quadriplegic.' They were trying to connect, and I quickly learned I had the strength to help them."
Rachelle also has been able to help people through her blog on The Huffington Post. Though she is paid little for her writing, the website has given her exposure to a wider audience. Her most popular blog, "10 Things You Shouldn't Say to Someone Who Uses a Wheelchair," has received more than 50,000 "likes" and has been shared about 8,000 times on Facebook.
Rachelle's blog in March about her desire to become a mother through surrogacy has attracted a good deal of attention as well. Some comments have suggested that Rachelle, whose continuing nerve pain and low blood pressure require medication that is incompatible with pregnancy, should not seek to become a mother.
"People will say, 'She can't be a mom; she's in a wheelchair.' That's a little frustrating," Rachelle said. "No one judges a single mother or a single father's physical ability to raise a kid, so why am I a hindrance?
"I can hold the baby. I'll be able change diapers and feed it and comfort it and dress it," she said. "All those things are going to take a little longer, but I can still do all those things. ... I know plenty of people in wheelchairs who are parents who are amazing parents."
Rachelle's blog drew attention from Surrogacy Together, an organization that offered to fund a portion of the costs for her and Chris. It also caught the eye of Humes, the former college friend who had followed the couple's story on social media.
"When I saw that Rachelle was looking for a surrogate, I thought, 'You know, this is something I really want to do,'" Humes said. "... She responded right away and said, 'Wow! That's the nicest thing anyone's ever offered to do for me.'"
Humes, who lives in Asheville with her husband and their 2-year-old son, is scheduled to travel to California next month for the embryo transfer.
"I was just assuming we would have to hire someone," said Rachelle, who has established an account with gofundme.com to help cover expenses. "I think a lot of people were like, 'What about one of the bridesmaids and the girl who did it?' But none of those girls have ever been moms, ever been pregnant, are just not in that mind-set, I guess. That alone didn't make me feel comfortable. I wanted someone who had been pregnant before, who knew what they were doing. Also, as far as the friend who was involved, I didn't want this to start off with guilt."
For Humes, the prospect of surrogacy is exciting.
"I feel really good about it," she said. "They're going to be great parents, and I'm really excited to watch their family grow."
Others are as well. Fans of "The Promise" already are asking if there will be a sequel on motherhood. Rachelle said she plans to blog about her experience and has not ruled out a second book.
She and Chris also have not ruled out a second child. After the initial transfer, the couple plans to keep one embryo.
"In 10 years, who knows where I'll be physically?" Rachelle asked. "If there's a cure in five years and I'm able to carry one, I would love to have another one."
They are considering donating any remaining embryos to help change someone else's life.
"Having the difficulty we're having," Rachelle said, "you know some couples just struggle forever. So (for them) to have a healthy embryo, eventually maybe I'll donate one."
Rachelle Friedman will read from and sign copies of her book, "The Promise: A Tragic Accident, a Paralyzed Bride and the Power of Love, Loyalty and Friendship," at 2 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble, 3040 Evans St. Her website is www.rachellefriedman.com
Information from: The Daily Reflector, http://www.reflector.com