Slowly, Switzer gets back on feet
January 11, 2002
These days, Daisy Switzer is taking life one step at a time.
She’s back at work at her mother’s law
firm on a part-time basis, has returned to her Grass Valley home and just last month began coursework on a doctorate in psychology through the University of Southern California.
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But the greatest accomplishment for the 36-year-old single mother may be something the majority of us do thousands of times a day without a single thought.
Switzer is walking.
Her steps come one year after she fell more than 20 feet from a second-story window at Nevada County’s Department of Behavioral Health Services in a desperate attempt to escape gunfire that claimed the lives of two of her co-workers and seriously injured another.
The gunman, allegedly Behavioral Health patient Scott Harlan Thorpe, later opened fire at Lyon’s Restaurant, killing the assistant manager and injuring a cook.
As the carnage continued, Switzer writhed in pain after climbing out the second-story window, holding on to the ledge as long as she could before falling onto a bush, which threw her onto her feet, breaking both, before she ended up on her back.
She broke more than 20 bones, including three toes, four right ribs, and three bones in her spine, which left the right side of her spine exposed.
After spending a month at Sutter Roseville Medical Center, Switzer goes through rehabilitation several times a week to regain her mobility.
Her life isn’t normal, but Switzer is taking whatever reward she can.
“You get to the point where you can finally go to the bathroom by yourself, and it’s like, ‘Cool.’ Just peeing by yourself is wonderful,” she said.
“I do have to face the fact that my body may never come back the way it used to be,” said Switzer, who can’t walk for long stretches of time, can’t use stairs, and needs a cane if she’s going to be on her feet for a while.
“It’s a terrifying feeling, but I have to feel grateful. I still walk away,” she said. “I still think, ‘Who jumps that far and walks away from it all?'”
Switzer said she harbors no ill will toward Thorpe, now a patient at Napa State Hospital, and only sorrow for his family – and the families of those killed and injured in one of Nevada County’s darkest days.
Of Pearlie Mae Feldman, the 68-year-old caregiver killed steps away from where Switzer worked as an intern caseworker, Switzer asks, “I just wonder who’s taking care of her patients. I can’t imagine what life must be like for the families of the people who died.”
She credits Jim Carney, the county’s housing director, who was the first to come to her aid, for keeping her alert after she fell. “I believed he saved my life,” she said.
After hearing a burst of gunfire, Carney heard screams outside. His employees ran for their lives on the building’s first floor.
“My first thought was to instinctively go out and help somebody,” said Carney, whose staff since has moved to Rood Administrative Center. “I never for a minute was afraid.”
When Carney asked Switzer why she jumped, she told him, “I didn’t want my daughter” – Emily, 12 – “to be an orphan.”
“It seemed to be the right thing to do at the time,” said Carney, who waited with Switzer for 40 minutes until help arrived. “It never occurred to me to do anything else. I never for an instant felt I was needed anywhere else.”
He continues to visit Switzer.
“I really admire her determination to survive. I just happened to be there, but she’s the one who made the decision to survive,” said Carney.
In the months after she fell, Switzer’s family temporarily moved her back into her mother’s home, where an elevator was installed to help Daisy.
It hasn’t been easy, her mother, Jayne Kelly de Lopez, said.
“I feel very grateful that she’s alive,” Kelly de Lopez said. “I feel sad, though, that she’s not who she was Jan. 9 (2001), and never will be.”
Kelly de Lopez, who employed her daughter as a part-time secretary at her law office, said Switzer lost a sense of her fiercely independent streak that day.
“She’s the kind of person that will do what she wants to do, and damn the consequences, but that’s who she is,” Kelly de Lopez said. Switzer changed her name to Daisy when she was 17, dyed her hair pink at 15, and got her navel pierced a few years ago “just to bug me,” Kelly de Lopez said.
Kelly de Lopez and her husband, Pablo, do not blame Thorpe for Switzer’s condition.
“In a sense, I think he knew what he was doing, but the reasoning was a little faulty,” Pablo Lopez said. “To do such a crime like that, to be temporarily insane … and then to be set free. He’s a victim. A victim of the system.”
Switzer has endured painful rehabilitation and has overcome a premature decision by Sutter Roseville doctors to have her sit in a wheelchair less than a month after her accident.
The doctors hadn’t realized the extent of her injuries.
“That was the worst. I thought I was going to die. It was blinding, hallucinating pain,” said Switzer, who credits doctors and therapists as well as her family for her survival.
But jumping was something she had to do, for her daughter, for herself, she said.
“I remember thinking what an idiot I was. I saw so much building going by. Maybe I should have worn softer shoes,” she joked. “But if I stayed there, I would have died. But that was my prayer: to not let me live for any other reason, but let me live for my daughter. And I would do it again.”