TWIN FALLS, Idaho (KMVT/KSVT) - Makenzie Ellsworth was your typical 15-year-old.
“I felt pretty invincible at that point in time,” Ellsworth said.
An accident in Salmon, Idaho, sent her and her friends off a gravel road into mountain wilderness.
“I wasn’t wearing my seat belt and I was in the middle of the vehicle,” she said. “So I did get squished more so than my friends did, which I think is why I was injured more so than they probably were.”
That accident instantly made her a T3 paraplegic.
“So to give you some perspective, I’m paralyzed from the chest down,” she explains.
That moment altered the trajectory of her life.
“For me, I can’t think about the ‘what if’ because I’m always thinking about moving forward and staying positive,” Ellsworth said. “If I always live in the ‘what if’ life, then I’m not gonna achieve new great things.”
A lesson that took courage, strength and lots of support.
“I can guarantee you I always wear my seat belt now,” she said.
She knows the lasting impact something like this can have on those around you.
"It’s a choice that you make, not just for yourself but for your family members so they don’t have to go through that suffering as well,” she said.
Growing up in rural Salmon, other members of the community chipped in so that her family could be with her in the hospital. Some taking care of the ranch, others protecting her mother’s job at a hospital by picking up her shifts.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Ellsworth said. “We don’t have full control over our lives and anything you can do to prevent something from happening to yourself. Your health and you are worth that. If you don’t think you’re worth it, your family does. Don’t put them through something that could’ve been prevented.”
Ellsworth spent three months recovering at the University of Utah, learning things like how to get dressed. She says she was inspired by Muffy Davis, a paralympic athlete and current Idaho House representative.
“I was always very independent before,” Ellsworth said. “To go from being very independent to being completely dependent on others was very tough mentally. I would say (I) definitely suffered from some depression in the beginning.”
In a report published by the Idaho Transportation Department, there were five serious injuries for every person killed in a car accident in 2017.
Twin Falls County Coroner Gene Turley has lived here his whole life.
“Seat belts can save your life, I’ve seen that quite a bit,” Turley said.
Factors like distracted driving, those driving under the influence and of course speeds, all play a role.
“When you’re speeding 60 to 80 miles per hour, it’s just the flip of the coin if you’re going to survive,” Turley said.
He says he and his staff are very thorough and very empathetic, which is important because at times they may know the victim when they arrive on scene.
Things never slowed down for Ellsworth, getting a bachelor’s degree in physical education.
"Use your injury to motivate you and to allow you to feel grateful for what you do have,” Ellsworth said.
She doesn’t limit herself, even working out at a local cross fit gym.
"My chair gives me so much freedom,” Ellsworth said. “I use it as my vehicle to the things I want.”
She spends her days working at St. Luke’s, helping others reach their health and fitness goals.
“I don’t see it as this terrible day in my life,” she said. “It closed a lot of doors in my life but it’s definitely opened up so many other doors that I’ve had a blast doing.”
Ellsworth is taking part in a film called "Making Sense," breaking down barriers for those with disabilities. It’s expected to be released in 2020.