On Valentine’s Day 2016, bride-to-be Anna Claire Waldrop was driving home from a party with her fiancé, James “Jimbo” Waldrop, when a reckless drunk driver changed her life forever.
The couple, at the time both seniors at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi, noticed a car coming up behind them, speeding.
Anna Claire sensed something was wrong.
“[The driver] was someone we knew actually, because it’s a small town,” Anna Claire, 24, tells PEOPLE. “He hit my side of the car and Jimbo flew through the sunroof. I stayed in the car, which flipped four times.”
The accident left her a quadriplegic.
“I was very scared,” says Anna Claire, who had already picked out a venue for her nuptials nine months away. “I wondered ‘Will I ever be happy again?’ But the thought of my upcoming wedding was motivation to get better.”
And after months of therapy, the high school sweethearts tied the knot on their originally planned wedding date, October 22, 2016.
“It was emotional thinking about having to be in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic for my wedding, instead of everything I had always envisioned,” says Anna Claire. “But it was beautiful and I’m finally happy now.”
Anna Claire and Jimbo grew up together in the small town of New Albany, Mississippi. They attended the same schools (even taking “best friend” yearbook photos together) and Jimbo called her up one day before starting sixth grade to officially ask her out.
It wasn’t until their junior year at New Albany High School that the couple became serious, planning a future together — they attended the same community college and later went Delta State University, where Anna Claire studied speech pathology.
“We were both kind of shy early on together,” recalls Anna Claire. “But after a year of dating I began to think ‘This guy could really be the one!’ “
Jimbo proposed to Anna Claire at Cheaha State Park in Alabama, hiding a ring in the bottom of a picnic basket.
The two quickly began planning their forever future.
“But then we were hit by the car and everything changed,” says Anna Claire. “There wasn’t a moment for me, some shocking moment like ‘I’m never going to walk again’ or anything.
“I was aware I couldn’t move, but it wasn’t until I saw other suffering patients at therapy that it hit me — I was very scared.”
Anna Claire started seeing therapists at Shepherd Center in Atlanta one month after the incident.
She came in unable to move her left arm and with a severely dislocated left shoulder.
She had no movement in her legs.
“I was extremely motivated,” says Anna Claire. “I remember nurses and my family talking at the hospital about how with my kinds of injuries, you never know how long it will take to come back.
“I knew my wedding was coming up and I didn’t want to change the date, it pushed me to recover.”
Jimbo, who sustained no serious injuries in the crash, visited Anna Claire in the hospital and helped her cope, both emotionally and physically, with her losses.
“I never once saw him getting upset, I mean he was just always strong and positive,” says Anna Claire. “He would walk into my room and make me giggle, I always felt better when he was with me.
“Nothing was going to tear us apart, I was rehabbing and planning my wedding all at the same time!”
During one recreational therapy session, a Shepherd trainer even took her wedding dress shopping.
“They really wanted me to go out in the community, which can be hard and emotional,” says Anna Claire. “So they took me to look at gowns.”
The second white dress she tried on — lacy, off the shoulder and absolutely stunning — was the one.
“They helped me put it and I looked the mirror and said, ‘This is it,’ ” recalls Anna Claire.
By the time her wedding at First United Methodist Church in New Albany rolled around, Anna Claire was able to move her left arm and wrists.
The beautiful bride strolled down the aisle in her wheelchair, glowing, surrounded by her closest family and friends.
“My marriage has pushed me through, and I’m very happy,” she says. “We want to start a family in the future!”
Anna Claire can now wiggle her toes and has improving hand grip.
Jimbo, who works as a middle school football coach and science teacher, is crafting a gym in their house to assist with his wife’s rehabilitation.
“We are loving married life,” says Anna Claire, who is pursuing a career as a speech therapist. “I try not to focus on what I’ve lost, but try to focus on what I have already — and that’s my advice for anyone who has gone through something like I have.”