Tammy Le: A Story of Courage, Strength, and Adapting

Tammy Le is a warrior. After a major 2008 car accident left her paralyzed, she experienced many mental, physical, and emotional challenges. She has emerged as a strong woman who exudes confidence, and she finds gratitude in the little things that many people take for granted. Everyone can learn from this brave quadriplegic.


Le was born in Oakland, and as a child, she moved to both Utah and Texas for short stints. She returned to California as a fourth-grader and lived in Milpitas until the age of 19. After that, she moved to San Jose and has been there ever since.


In April 2008, Le — a high school senior at the time — was traveling to Santa Cruz from Milpitas via Highway 17. It was towards the end of the school year; all the seniors were headed to the beach. Le was a passenger in the back seat of a friend’s car. Another car on the highway was speeding and cut their car off; her friend swerved to avoid being hit and then hit the median, and the car flipped. The impact was heavily on Le’s side, and she was caught under the car. The resulting spinal cord injuries left her paralyzed from the chest down.


Prior to her injury, Le’s fondest memories of visiting Santa Cruz were going to the beach and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. “I loved the hustle and bustle of the Boardwalk. My favorite thing to get was a caramel candy apple.” Le regrets that she didn’t take the time to experience the rides; now she wishes she had.


After the accident, Le did not visit Santa Cruz for several years. The first time she came back was in early 2022. As the car reached the Santa Cruz exit, she experienced very strong emotions. “I bawled because I felt like this is what should have happened (on April 14, 2008). The next couple times, it’s been better. I have come to enjoy food, to observe the beach, and to enjoy the scenery.” She likes comfort food a lot. “At the Santa Cruz Wharf, you can get a variety of things like clam chowder or a taco or pasta. I love that you can get all these things in one place.”


Le’s third journey to Santa Cruz after the accident was for a special purpose. She had been invited to participate in a “Visit Santa Cruz County/Let’s Cruz” commercial. “When I went to film the commercial, it was incredibly healing because I felt I was in a much different place in my life. The folks from VSCC were very accommodating and understanding towards the symptoms I experience due to paralysis. Not being able to walk affects my ability to regulate my nervous system and body temperature. The crew brought a generator, heater, and all forms of warming material to ensure that I was comfortable. Not many people are that understanding and patient.”

There were multiple reasons why this experience was healing. “First, life came full circle. I had been petrified of revisiting Santa Cruz—especially scared about being on the road where my life changed drastically. Now, every time I am on that road, it helps me face my fear. Every time I make it here safely, it feels good because of every ounce of power over that fear that I can take.”


Another reason the commercial experience was beneficial, Le says, is because she always finds nature to be healing. “It was great to be on that Redwood Trail (in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park) for the commercial. The world is not made to be accessible for disabled people, so anytime I can be somewhere like that (in nature, which is more accessible) is wonderful.”

She notes that, for many disabled people out there interested in traveling to Santa Cruz, the town has “lots of great nature spots to explore, plus trails, beaches, etc. Henry Cowell is one of these places.” There are also beach wheelchairs at many Santa Cruz County state beach locations (reserve one here) but she has not personally tried these. She has heard of adaptive kayaking and is interested in trying it sometime. Shared Adventures is one organization that helps disabled individuals explore sports like kayaking and canoeing.


Fourteen years ago, after the accident, Le didn’t think of herself as attractive or worthy. “Being cast in a commercial reminds me how far I’ve come, reminds me of all the work I’ve put into myself. I’m also proud to be representing the disabled community, as there can be a lack of diversity when it comes to inclusion.”


Le is very thankful for her family. “They are the #1 reason that I stay positive, the support has been unreal. They’re the reason I’ve gotten to where I am today. Not just immediate, but cousins, and more. I can count on them to come through, whether it’s to provide last-minute caregiving support or anything else!” She also receives lots of support from people in the spinal cord injury and physical therapy communities. “The PT community is very tight-knit.” She refers to PT with Mike Terrell and Kayla at a Neuro Fitness Gym called SCI-FIT as “amazing…also Adaptive Pilates at Zebrafish Neuro with Stephanie Comella. They’re like friends and family.”


The way Le sees the world has, of course, significantly changed now that she is a quadriplegic. “The main shift in my perspective is that due to my disability I’ve gotten used to becoming more of an observer because the world isn’t as accessible.” She wishes she had taken the time, before her injury, to appreciate things like walking along the beach and dipping her toes in the ocean. “Now, if I dip my toes in the ocean, I can’t feel it. But I still hold deep gratitude for being able to enjoy life and all these things as an observer.” 


During the pandemic, to stay positive she exercised frequently and created a bunch of social media content (cooking, makeup tutorials, etc.) that she posted on her Instagram account @resilient.comm. She also walked her dog Mello a lot. “The power of having a companion pet is astounding. I rescued him a little before the pandemic started. He had zero forms of training, yet somehow adapted to my disability. I just hook him into the metal bar that’s attached to my wheelchair, and he follows my lead as I wheel.” During the pandemic, she also found a multitude of ways to do wheelchair and bed workouts which helped tremendously with her mental health. “As much as I miss going for a run, I feel the same level of endorphins when I push myself around our kitchen island in my manual chair to strengthen my arms. I appreciate finding any opportunity and outlet to get my body moving.”


In 2013, Le started an online apparel business to raise money for physical therapy and other medical expenses not covered by insurance. You can visit the Resilient shop at resilientquad.bigcartel.com and also see some of the products on her Instagram.


When asked what businesses could do to better serve disabled travelers Le replied, “In a word: Accessibility. I wish there was more inclusion, like ramps and paved floors. Ramps—in restaurants and other places—would really enhance our quality of life and inclusion within society. There are so many places with stairs. We’re forced to do vigorous research and calling before going somewhere to ensure that there are no steps, in order for us to have access to a location. There should be more accessible parking, too. Table heights that work better with wheelchairs. I have to make tons of calls and do research before I travel somewhere. Otherwise, if I show up, and it doesn’t work, I feel embarrassed as everyone is staring at me. Another source of inclusion can be more heat lamps: not being able to walk, my body runs cold. People don’t think about the fact it’s more than not just being able to walk, there are other symptoms.” 


Le implores people out there to drive carefully, and at a speed, they’re comfortable with, especially on dangerous roads like Highway 17. “Also, make sure to watch for people that tailgate or cut you off, there are lots of drivers like this.” 


“I’ve learned that you don’t need to be able to walk or have legs to have a fulfilling life. I am capable, and I have the ability to advocate for myself. Advocating for yourself doesn’t require legs. It takes more work, but it’s possible.” It took many years, but Le now recognizes and embraces her resiliency. “Through all my trials and tribulations my takeaway is how much power I possess to direct my own life.”