Chris Skinner was dating a nursing student when he asked his grandfather to pray that she would be the girl he would marry, but his grandfather refused.
Instead, he asked his grandson to make a written list of the qualities that are really important in a woman. Chris complied, and the following month, he found them all in Suzie Skinner.
“I just got hit by this force,” said Chris, a 34-year-old quadriplegic. “I thought, ‘That is exactly what I want,’ and I put on the full press.”
As the Grand Strand celebrates Valentine’s Day, Chris reflects on how he discovered what love really is and snagged his perfect partner.
Never miss a local story.
On June 10, 2000, Chris was paralyzed in a car accident after he and a friend had been drinking at a friend’s wedding. A native of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, he was a hard-partying fraternity boy at Radford University in Virginia who had unbuckled his seat belt before his friend lost control of the car, throwing him out of the vehicle and breaking his neck.
Chris found himself a few months after the accident at Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center in Fishersville, Va., where Suzie, 25, was his physical therapist. They worked together for two hours, five days a week for eight weeks. Chris said he was in a sensitive, intimate and vulnerable situation, and Suzie was “incredibly professional” as he poured his heart out during that emotional time.
It also was emotional for Suzie, who said she had never worked with someone so acute. They worked on strength and balance, aiming for him to get in and out of his wheelchair on his own, but they didn’t reach that goal. That was a new experience for Suzie, who had had success with her other patients, but she said Chris’ personality was new for her, too.
“What was different about Chris is he is always very honest,” Suzie said. “Whereas a lot of guys would keep things to themselves – if they’re angry or hopeful – Chris would just share it all.”
The two began to develop a strong bond, but love wasn’t in the picture at that time. Chris said Suzie was always a woman of faith, and he thought she was cute and a goody-goody in a good way – “one of those you want to marry” – but he contracted a MRSA infection and was moved to a hospital. Chris and his mother guilted Suzie into visiting Chris and staying in touch, as by this time, he said, friends who had once overcrowded his room had completely disappeared, but as the months went by, their communication dwindled.
Before the accident, Chris, the self-described hippy, beach kid, had earned a .8 grade-point average in three semesters at Radford, bounced into the Army National Guard and community college (where he earned a 3.0 GPA) and back to Radford. Months after his hospital stay, he went back to Radford, where he eventually earned a master’s degree but still managed to keep up his partying ways.
“Everyone was gung ho, Skinner’s back, but a year and a half later, I couldn’t find anyone to help me,” he said. “I learned a lot about love, a lot about friendship and a lot about life.”
Chris said he just had to grow up, and it was after the fateful talk with his grandfather that he returned to the rehab center for work on his wheelchair and ran into Suzie again. He had help from friends to enlist for a hike on a trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains where they reconnected at an overlook, and he asked if he could give her a call because he knew she was “the one.”
“At this point, he was an entirely different person,” Suzie said. “It didn’t take me too long to come around – he is the strongest person I’ve ever met. He can shift gears and enjoy whatever happens.”
The couple returned to the mountain overlook on the third anniversary of Chris’ accident - he popped the question, she said, “Yes,” and they were married six months later. Their twins, Caleb and Alethia, came along in 2007, and they celebrated their 10th anniversary Jan. 10.
The Skinner family moved to Myrtle Beach in April for the flatter terrain that allows Chris to move around more freely. They settled in the Emmens Preserve neighborhood where they have found an abundance of love in their neighbors, who within four days raised $5,000 to pay medical expenses for Zoey, a rescued Yorkie with Canine Angels, who is now a devoted service dog for Chris.
Chris is a motivational speaker who has talked with more than a million students about making the right choices and making the best of life. He wrote a book, “The Ultimate Learning Experience,” maintains a website (chrisskinner.org) and said he wants students to know they’re not invincible and that each decision could be their last and to use it wisely.
“I used to think no one’s ever going to love me, and I wanted to be more normal, but now I’ve realized no one’s normal,” Chris said with a grin. “Before the accident - it seems like that life didn’t exist, like it was like a different universe. My life is so much sweeter now.”