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Friends Rally to Ease Blow of Teacher’s Freak Mishap

Times Staff Writer

During the day, surrounded by family and friends, Renee Lacouague maintains a positive attitude about the freak accident that crippled her.

But in the middle of the night, alone and vulnerable, the once-active teacher gets angry when she awakens and can’t even remove a blanket.

“I don’t get angry over ‘Why me?’ I get angry over why this would have to happen to anybody. Why does anybody have to be so immobile?” asked Lacouague, 30, who taught music at San Clemente High School.

Lacouague (pronounced La-Kwog) broke her neck May 16 after falling from her bed while asleep at home. The accident left her paralyzed from the neck down. Doctors predict she will probably remain a quadriplegic for the rest of her life.

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Today, Lacouague undergoes therapy almost every day and has a live-in attendant. Although insurance has paid most of her medical bills, Lacouague needs up to $2,000 a month more to pay for her day-to-day care. She also needs nearly $50,000 for a new van outfitted for handicapped use and special therapy equipment, such as a stationary bicycle that shocks paralyzed legs into action with electronic impulses.

Friends and Strangers Have Banded Together

With her family hard-pressed to meet these obligations, friends and strangers have banded together in south Orange County to help. Parents of San Clemente High students have formed a “Rally Around Renee” group to raise donations. They have distributed newsletters and taken up collections in local stores and banks. The fund-raising effort has yielded about $9,000 so far, Lacouague said.

Also, proceeds from this year’s seventh annual San Juan Capistrano Team Penning, scheduled Saturday and Sunday at the Ortega Equestrian Center, are to be donated to Lacouague and the Orange County Riding Center, a therapeutic horseback-riding program for the physically handicapped.

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About 500 people are expected to attend. DeeDee Gates, owner of the equestrian center and wife of Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates, said she expects the event to raise up to $5,000 for Lacouague, who rode horses competitively while growing up in San Juan Capistrano.

“I remember watching Renee participate in the (barrel racing) event years ago, (and) we just want to help her out,” she said.

Lacouague has also received an outpouring of sympathy from her school. Last year, the other 50 teachers at San Clemente High made a quilt for her, each contributing a patch. School songs and plays have been dedicated in her name. And, in the days immediately after the accident, students unfurled a banner over Interstate 5 that read: “We love you, Renee.”

“She was probably the most caring and giving person around, and she was always giving hugs to her students,” fellow music teacher Bob Avzaradel said.

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Lacouague and her family also said that they have been overwhelmed by all this support.

“What’s surprised me most are the students,” Lacouague said. “They all come by. They all still call.”

Lacouague said she was also delighted that her fiance, Mike Bondi, did not desert her after she became disabled. The two had been engaged to be married July 23. They still plan to marry, although at an as-yet-unspecified time.

“Mike is very quick to say he’s in it for the long run,” she said. “I have told him I would understand if he left, because I’m not the person I was. He just says to me, ‘Sure you are.’ ”

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The accident came as a devastating blow to a woman whose life had been so active. Just the day before, Lacouague had conducted San Clemente High’s production of the musical “Pajama Game.”

Before joining the high school’s teaching staff 3 years earlier, Lacouague had spent 6 years as music director of Mission Roman Catholic Church in San Juan Capistrano, where she grew up as a granddaughter of Basque emigrants from France. She has two sisters and a brother, all older.

As a teen, Lacouague distinguished herself both on the singing circuit and riding horses in amateur rodeo events. She was a regular at local barrel-racing events and spent 7 months touring the United States, Japan, Korea, Europe and Mexico as a member of the Young Americans, a student song-and-dance group.

All seemed well in her life. Even the day before the accident, she and fellow teacher Jennifer Gay talked after the “Pajama Game” performance.

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“In the parking lot that night, we were kidding around about going out to celebrate,” Gay said. “But she said that, no, she wanted to go home and get some sleep.”

Lacouague, who was living in San Juan Capistrano at the time, said she remembers going to bed at about 11 p.m. on May 15.

“I felt great about everything,” she said.

Neither Lacouague nor her doctors can explain exactly what happened. The doctors said they have never heard of a similar case. All Lacouague remembers is awakening the split second before her head hit the floor at the foot of the bed. It was 2:15 a.m.

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“It was almost like I dove off my bed,” Lacouague said.

Her brother, Daniel Lacouague, added: “The only explanation was that she was sleepwalking on top of her bed or acting out a dream.”

But Lacouague said she had never had a problem with sleepwalking.

At the time, Lacouague was living with a roommate, who heard Lacouague’s cries for help and called an ambulance. While waiting for paramedics to arrive, Lacouague said she knew “something very heavy-duty was going on. Not just with my body, but like God was using me in some way.”

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Her months of therapy have focused on strengthening the limited arm movement that she did not lose in the fall. The movement has been enough for Lacouague to relearn some basic tasks, such as feeding herself. She now feeds herself with the braces attached to her hands. And she has even managed some awkward writing, using a pen attached to a hand brace.

“I’ve written a couple of notes to my students,” she said.

Although Lacouague’s physical outlook is not bright, she still hopes to resume a relatively normal life. The Capistrano Unified School District may permit her to resume teaching music at San Clemente High, district spokeswoman Jackie Serra said.

No decision has been made yet on when she would return or what she would teach, Serra added: “We’re working with her to see what she feels she is capable of doing.”

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Lacouague is optimistic. “Yes, I’m real excited about it and, yes, it’s a little scary,” she said. “I love teaching, and I hope to return in September.”

The district has also renewed Lacouague’s teaching credential, which was due to expire this summer.

If Lacouague can return to school, she will have the enthusiastic support of San Clemente High’s 1,935 students. Already, she is mobbed by students during her infrequent visits to the campus in her wheelchair.

Teacher Gay is also confident that Lacouague can eventually come to terms with the tragedy.

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“If anyone can cope with this kind of accident, it is Renee,” Gay said. “She is just one of those women who can overcome anything.”

Lacouague said she does not know yet whether she will become a “miracle kid” and confound the doctors. But she is trying to deal with her condition by staying busy. She goes to movies and concerts. She sings at weddings. And she endures therapy sessions lasting 10 to 12 hours per day.

“I’m just too young to sit back in a chair for the rest of my life,” she said.


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