On the spur of the moment in the early-morning hours of Nov. 10, 2001, actor Daryl Mitchell decided to try out a relative’s Kawasaki Ninja 900 motorcycle. “I rode off,” the Veronica’s Closet star says, “and I never came back.” Within minutes Mitchell, then 36, had skidded off a gravel-strewn road on Warsaw Island near Beaufort, S.C., where he was vacationing with his family. He suffered a fractured wrist, punctured lungs, bruised kidneys and, worst of all, damage to his spinal cord that left him paralyzed from the chest down. “It was totally my fault,” Mitchell says. “I took off in the dark without a helmet on a road I didn’t know.”
Doctors at Beaufort Memorial Hospital were unsure if he would survive the airlift to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. “After the helicopter took off, it took his brothers and me two hours to drive there,” recalls Mitchell’s wife, Carol, 35, a homemaker. “We didn’t know what we’d find.”
They found Mitchell was a fighter, as he always has been. Born the fourth of five children to a truck driver and his wife, a secretary, Mitchell, who grew up in Wyandanch, N.Y., knew by age 5 that he would be an actor. “I wanted the attention,” he says. Roles in the 1990 film House Party and the ’92 TV series Here and Now with pal Malcolm-Jamal Warner eventually led to his part on Veronica (1997-99) as Kirstie Alley’s wisecracking marketing manager. His latest film, Disney’s The Country Bears, finished months before his accident, comes out July 26. Mitchell, who spoke with PEOPLE contributor Gail Wescott, is confident there will be more credits. “I’m going to keep doing what I do,” he says in the suburban Atlanta home he shares with Carol, daughter Kamari, 7, and sons Desmin, 5, and Justin, 2, “which is striving for a great career.”
They last thing I remember is getting out of my brother’s Ford Explorer [at a Beaufort nightclub] and seeing sand on the ground. I had on new gray boots, and I remember getting dust all over them. I started to walk inside when I saw my nephew’s bike. Everette [then 26] had tried to get me to ride it the night before—it was new—but I’d refused because I was drinking. That night I wasn’t drinking, so I decided to try it—I have a Kawasaki Ninja 1100 of my own. The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital in Charleston.
I couldn’t move. I was in the ICU, lying rigid on my back, being fed through a tube, trying to figure out what happened. People kept telling me that I’d been in a motorcycle accident, and I was thinking, ‘What motorcycle?’ Doctors have since told me that this kind of short-term blackout is not unusual—it may even be protective.
I was on a lot of morphine, and I don’t know how long I kept going in and out. I knew I couldn’t feel certain things, like my legs, but I didn’t know if that was the medication or what. Family and friends kept coming in and out. They could only stay two minutes at a time. I was just lying there on my back watching them. It was sort of like seeing your own funeral.
The doctors told me that I had messed up my spinal cord and that I was paralyzed. It was more amazing to me than scary. Me, the most mobile person in the world, and I couldn’t move. I’d played basketball and baseball and wrestled in school and done a whole lot of swimming. And dance? Oh, my God, I was a great dancer.
Surgery was next. The doctors needed to stabilize the vertebral bones. “Fine,” I said, “but no blood transfusions,” because I grew up studying the Jehovah’s Witness religion. I don’t take blood. The doctors said I had to have transfusions because this was major surgery. And I said, “Well, you have to find another answer.” And that’s how things went. It was a war.
Carol had taken the children back to Atlanta after about 10 days. I remember calling her there, and I told her I might not get off the table. I asked her, “You all right with that?” and she broke down and said, “Hell, no!” And I said, “Well, you gotta be strong, because I’m not taking any blood.”
That’s when we learned from a friend about the Shepherd Center in Atlanta [a world-renowned center for spinal cord injuries]. Dr. Herndon Murray, the medical director [for the spinal-injury program], said he could do the surgery without transfusions. They have a cell-saver machine that cleanses the blood lost and keeps it in a continuous loop so that it is never outside the body.
I was airlifted to Atlanta on Nov. 27, and the surgery was performed on Dec. 6. When I woke up, my friend from New York City, David Snowden, was sitting there. He’s been in a wheelchair since being shot in 1991, and he knew what I was facing. Dave plays wheelchair basketball, and on another visit to Shepherd, he got in a game in the gym. Here were these guys knocking each other out of their chairs and nobody was getting hurt. And they argued like everybody else. I realized that they were just normal people. This gave me comfort, a feeling that I was going to be all right.
First I had to learn to sit up. I was moved downstairs to start rehab. There I was with staples in my back and pain like you wouldn’t believe, and there is some woman named Cynthia yelling at me like a drill sergeant, telling me to sit up, reach forward, reach over my head. And I did it.
I remember one session when they said, “Today’s therapy is devoted to taking off your sneakers and putting them back on.” I thought, how hard can that be? Needless to say, an hour later I was still fussing with one shoe. Now I get myself dressed. I drive, I shoot pool, shoot at the pistol range. I do everything. And best of all, I play with my kids.
You think no one cares, and then something like this happens. Everybody called—Kirstie Alley, Bill Cosby, Chris Rock, Bill Maher. Denzel [Washington] has been like a god-brother. He flew up from Miami to take me to the Mike Tyson-Lennox Lewis fight in his plane. I knew Denzel was going to win the Oscar. He said, “If you’re so sure, come on out here.” So I flew out. But guess what? I couldn’t go to the Oscars. That brand-new Kodak building did not have adequate wheelchair seating. That’s gonna change. Everyone’s going to know about wheelchairs now that I’m in one. I promise you that.