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Man helps girlfriend with spinal cord injury cross finish line

Four months ago, Monique Koll was in a hospital bed, wondering if she would ever walk again. The Louisiana woman had suffered a severe spinal cord injury when a motorist struck her while she was riding her bicycle, and doctors originally weren't sure she'd survive.

On Sunday, Koll was back on her feet, crossing the finish line of the Rock ‘N’ Roll New Orleans Half Marathon with the help of her boyfriend who has been with her every step of the way. Koll, 35, slowly and steadily made it across the finish line while she held the left arm of Nick Zaunbrecher, 31, who had pushed her in a wheelchair for the entire 13-mile race up to that point.  

“I was crying,’’ Koll told TODAY.com. “I thought I hid it from everybody, but then the cameras caught it. I didn’t know how emotional it would be. Nick was amazing. He pushed that wheelchair over those crazy New Orleans streets for 13 miles. For him to be able to help me walk across the finish line, it was just crazy.’’

The photo by New Orleans Times-Picayune photographer Kathleen Flynn of Zaunbrecher helping Koll across the finish line went viral on Monday after a friend posted it on Reddit, but the couple says they weren't even planning to end the race that way. Koll and Zaunbrecher had initially planned that she would use her walker to cover the final hundred feet to the finish line. However, the pair found themselves an hour ahead of their projected pace and didn’t know if the person who was supposed to meet them on the racecourse with Koll’s walker would be there by the time they reached that mark. They concocted a new plan on the spot.

“She just needs help with balancing, so I just gave her an arm to let her get over (the finish line),’’ Zaunbrecher told TODAY.com. “It was really thrilling. I was exhausted at that point in the race, but it was a very emotionally-charged moment. I was just there to help.’’

Koll currently goes to physical therapy three times a week near her home in Lafayette, La. She has progressed from originally getting dizzy whenever she stood up, to using a wheelchair, to now being able to use a walker.

“The prognosis according to the surgeon and my physical therapist is really good that I’ll be able to run again,’’ she said. “When it first happened, they thought I might die, and then I couldn’t feed myself.’’

The half-marathon marked the latest milestone in Koll’s steady recovery since shattering three vertebrae and suffering a spinal cord injury at the level of her C7 vertebra on Oct. 8, 2012. While on a bike ride with a neighbor on a country road near her home, she said she was struck by an unlicensed driver. The case is still working its way through the court system, according to Koll.

She has since juggled her arduous recovery with taking care of her 6-year-old son, Liam, from a previous relationship. Zaunbrecher moved in with the two of them following the accident and helped take care of Liam in the two months she spent in Touro Infirmary in New Orleans doing physical therapy.

 “It’s been challenging, definitely, but very rewarding,’’ Zaunbrecher said. “It’s really meant a lot to be able to be there for her and for Liam. It’s brought us closer together. It’s very rewarding to see her improving so much every day. It’s a slow process, but it’s definitely been moving in a steady direction forward.’’

“It was the most difficult time of my life,’’ Koll said about the immediate aftermath of the crash. “It was hard on (Liam). When he first saw me, he was like, ‘Mom, you look like a zombie.’ He’s used to it now, and he helps with the walker and everything else. I’m glad I can set such a good example for him.’’

This isn’t the first accident Koll has endured. In 2002, she was in a car accident in which she broke her collarbone and her right hip before making a full recovery. She started to get into running and triathlons two years ago while trying to stay fit in the midst of juggling her job as a veterinarian and raising her son. Her participation in last year’s event in New Orleans marked the first time she ran a half marathon, and she had planned on running it again with friends this year before she was injured.

The USA Paratriathlon organization has reached out to her to participate in events, which she plans to try, but her ultimate goal is to cross the finish line of the New Orleans event all by herself one day.

“I plan on racing again,’’ she said. “The doctors think I’m going to get back to everything, and I’m determined.’’

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