COEUR d’ALENE — Early last year, Devyn Burdett woke up in the middle of the night to find her legs would not work.
She couldn’t move them.
The 35-year-old still can’t.
“They don’t really know,” she said of the many specialists she has seen.
They found some swelling in the T9 and T10 vertebra of the spinal cord, but that doesn’t fully explain it. She had been experiencing numbness and tingling for years and seeing a neurologist, who had diagnosed some disorders.
“But none of those explain my legs,” Burdett said. “It’s not normal, but there’s no explanation.”
That doesn’t stop her from pushing ahead, full throttle because she has plans. Big plans. The spirited red-head is, after all, the first holder of the title of Ms. Wheelchair Idaho since 2013.
“I love it,” she said.
It has given her a renewed sense of power and purpose.
She ponders her platform with her new role in which she acts as an advocate for people facing similar challenges. She tosses some ideas around when asked what message Ms. Wheelchair Idaho wants to share with the community
“Get out. Get active. You’re not alone,” she says, then her blue-eye eyes seem to sparkle.
“I like that,” she says as she grabs a pen and pad and writes it down.
On a Friday morning, Burdett is at the Coeur d’Alene office of BurdRock Construction, led by her husband, Nick Burdett. Her wheelchair is next to her desk.
She is happy and jokes about technical troubles.
“My computer froze this morning and I keep looking over, I keep hoping it’s going to restart,” she said, laughing.
Her service dog, a 135-pound, three-foot-tall Great Dane named Ali-Bama (a nod to Alabama, where Burdett is originally from, and she is a diehard Crimson Tide fan), is at her side, watching until she feels her master is fine, and disappears behind the desk.
“She goes everywhere with me,” Burdett said. “Grocery stores, restaurants. She pulls me everywhere I need to go.”
Kieren, her 15-year-old son, opens the door and asks if she would like lunch.
She declines, noting it’s too early.
“But thank you,” she says.
Burdett has a big heart. Her family recently adopted a rescue dog that had been living in an abusive situation. They named him Bruce Banner for his fierce exterior but gentle interior. And true to form, Bruce Banner barks ferociously at a first-time visitor before calmly walking away with Nick Burdett.
Devyn Burdett beams with energy and focus. She is feeling good on this day.
“When I’m not, I don’t get in trouble for not coming to work because my husband is a pretty amazing guy and a pretty understanding boss,” she said, smiling.
Before her life was dramatically interrupted, Burdett was an on-the-go mom of three (Makiah is 11, Zhane is 10) who worked as a legal assistant with a law firm. She skied, ran and biked. The family camped, four-wheeled and fished.
“We were a very active family until the chair,” she said.
When she could no longer use her legs, depression set in.
“When I was first got put in the chair, I was done. I was completely done,” she said.
There was a lot of crying, feelings of hopelessness and asking God, why?
“I lost my relationship with God,” she said.
She hid in the bedroom to avoid being around her children.
“Because I felt useless,” Burdett said. “I was so alone and so devastated. I searched high and low for other people in wheelchairs. It’s almost impossible in this area.”
When her mom and friends tried to encourage her, saying there’s a reason for everything, Burdett responded, “There’s not a reason for this.”
But maybe there was.
She prayed God would give her something — something she could hold on to, to give her a sense of purpose.
About then, searching online, she came across Ms. Wheelchair Idaho.
That caught her attention. No one, she learned, had run for this title in seven years.
“Maybe that’s what I need to do,” she recalled thinking at the time. “That’s my cause. This is my purpose.”
As Burdett began to find out more about the program, her excitement grew. It could open doors for herself and for others, too.
“Maybe this is why I was put in the wheelchair,” she said.
She reached out to organizers. There was a lengthy application process and interviews. What they wanted to know was, would Devyn Burdett be a good advocate as Ms. Wheelchair Idaho.
Yes, came the answer. The title was hers. An official ceremony to recognize her is set for Feb. 20 in Coeur d’Alene.
That’s only the beginning.
“That’s where my advocacy comes in as bringing that awareness that we want to do stuff, too,” she said.
Burdett plans to increase opportunities for others facing similar challenges. She is reaching out to businesses about adaptive tools for those with both short- and long-term disabilities, and wants to start a local adaptive sports program.
She’s opening conversations with outdoor organizations to have equipment for those with special needs to try zip lining, fishing and skiing and golfing.
Through her title and platform, Burdett intends on working with companies to raise funds to do just that.
Her goals, as she made clear, are big. Along those lines, she plans to ski, golf and is training for Bloomsday with her daughter.
She also plans to participate in Ms. Wheelchair America in August in Grand Rapids, Mich.
A fundraiser is underway at GoFundMe to cover costs for her to make the trip. The goal is $5,000 and it is organized by Brooke Miller, owner of Beau Monde Clothing Outlet and a Burdett sponsor as Ms. Wheelchair Idaho.
“The mission of Ms. Wheelchair America is to provide an opportunity of achievement for women who happen to be wheelchair users to successfully educate and advocate for the more than 64 million Americans living with disabilities,” Miller wrote on the website. “Unlike traditional beauty pageants, Ms. Wheelchair America is not a contest to select the most attractive individual. It is instead a competition based on advocacy, achievement, communication and presentation to select the most accomplished and articulate spokeswoman for persons with disabilities.”
Will she walk again?
Burdett doubts it.
“They don’t think so. Every test they do I still don’t have any function or feeling down there,” she said. “At first they thought it was only going to be few weeks, but it’s been almost a year and there’s still no function coming back.”
But she won’t let it stop her.
She’s scheduling appearances as Ms. Wheelchair Idaho this year at celebrations and festivals in Coeur d’Alene, St. Maries, Sandpoint and Boise. She will be organizing a Ms. Wheelchair Idaho pageant for next year, too.
Burdett loves North Idaho. She knows how beautiful it is, and she wants people with special needs to be able to enjoy its outdoors just as much as everyone else.
“My main platform is people are not alone,” she said. “You’re not alone. You can make a change.”