GREENFIELD — Walking across the graduation stage to accept her diploma Saturday will likely be a sweeter experience for Caitlyn Gunn than many of her classmates.
She’s spent the past seven months in a wheelchair, unable to walk after an October car accident broke her neck, her back, every bone in her foot and kept her out of school for the much of her senior year.
On Saturday, she’ll use a walker to accept the certificate that signifies the end of one chapter and beginning of another.
Most of Gunn’s injuries have healed, but her foot has been in some sort of cast for months. Walking again won’t come easy. But she’s determined not to graduate from Greenfield-Central High School in a wheelchair.
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The October accident on County Road 300S near New Palestine sent her to an Indianapolis hospital, where she stayed for 10 days. She missed school the following two months as she recovered, finally returning after Christmas break.
Since then, she’s had two more surgeries, been to countless doctor appointments and missed about five weeks of school.
The accident could have derailed her, setting her back a semester. But it didn’t. The high school senior will graduate on schedule Saturday with an academic honors diploma and college credits.
Her teachers and counselors say it’s remarkable she’s graduating on time. Many students might have fallen behind if faced with similar challenges.
But Gunn doesn’t think she’s special. She never doubted she’d graduate on time. Her mother, Shana Gunn, knew she could do it, too.
Her daughter is stubborn. Once she’s set her mind to something, nothing can stop her, Shana Gunn said.
Gunn’s senior year started like many others. Summer ended, and her mind was set on one thing: graduation. She looked forward to finishing high school and starting college, where she’d be able to pick the classes she wanted to take and work toward a degree in counseling.
The Greenfield teenager was taking two dual-credit courses to earn college credits in English and speech. She was working at Kroger to save money for college.
On a Wednesday night in October, Gunn was driving on County Road 300S when an oncoming car crossed the center line.
At least, that’s what Gunn thinks happened. The other driver never stopped.
Gunn’s car flipped, hit a tree and landed on its passenger side.
Though she was conscious when emergency responders got to the scene, she doesn’t remember much about the accident — except seeing tail lights driving away.
After 10 days at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, she spent weeks at home recovering.
Going back to school after being away was strange. Events had come and gone; classmates had made memories without her.
But getting back into a routine wasn’t hard, Gunn said.
In the months leading up to the end of her high school career, she took half-days and completed school work at home.
Even without a full course load, school days were mentally exhausting. Gunn usually fell asleep before dark, her mom said.
Gunn has trouble remembering little details since the accident. She spells words incorrectly and mixes up numbers, tasks she didn’t struggle with before.
Juggling the school work and doctor’s appointments as she works to recover hasn’t been easy for her daughter, Shana Gunn said, despite her daughter’s can-do attitude.
And there have been harrowing moments — even all these months later.
On a recent Monday, her mom checked Gunn out of school and rushed her to the hospital. A terrible headache made Shana Gunn fear her daughter was suffering a brain bleed.
Doctors didn’t find anything wrong with her immediately, but Gunn will undergo more brain testing this summer.
Through it all, she’s persevered.
“She’s learned how to tough it out,” Shana Gunn said.
Educators helped her navigate through her senior year to ensure she’d still receive her academic honors diploma despite the accident, said Assistant Principal Susie Coleman. Teachers extended deadlines, allowed her to work from home and worked with Gunn to complete assignments.
Through it all, she never complained, Coleman said.
“She just kept plugging along,” she said. “While life got in the way, she never let it be an obstacle.”
On Saturday, Coleman will be among the cheerleaders praying Gunn makes it across the stage without her wheelchair.
“She’s told me she’s walking,” Coleman said. “We’ll be there to help make that dream come true.”