She had the perfect job.
Two custom computers, mentors, a legal secretary. She had friends, travel partners, a home of her own.
Holly Caudill had every reason to grow old in Spokane - except that it would have felt like settling.
Last month, the assistant U.S. attorney left her office in Spokane to prosecute border crimes in San Diego.
Twenty years after a car accident snapped her neck, one of the first women quadriplegic attorneys in the country will be financially and emotionally independent.
Today, Caudill will address 400 Goodwill Industries directors at a week-long international convention in downtown Spokane. She’ll speak of the intuition that’s guided her and the gifts of others that made the journey possible.
“It took a whole village to get me to work,” says Caudill, 34. “Spokane raised me, the village got me to law school, now I’m a big girl and I’m leaving home.”
Diane and Pat Sullivan, first cousins who’ve been like parents to Caudill since her own mother and father died, were anxious about the move.
“We were stunned,” says Diane Sullivan. The people in Caudill’s vast support network felt better only after investigating her new working and living conditions, and connecting with family friends in San Diego.
They know she needs warmth. Since she was paralyzed Caudill has been unable to regulate her body temperature. The Sullivans installed additional furnaces, electric blankets, even a gas stove in her bedroom, but the cold was still unbearable.
They also know that being one of 100 assistant attorneys in the fast-paced San Diego office appeals to her.
Caudill has been hired to prosecute illegal immigrants accused of violent and drug-related felonies. The cases are similar to ones she handled in Spokane, but light-years from her first visits to court when she was so terrified she asked co-workers to write a script of every line she should say to the judge.
“We’re behind her and we know she can do it,” says Sullivan. “But … if she said ‘I want to come home,’ we’d be on the next flight. Of course, we don’t tell her that.”
In many ways, home is full of ghosts.
Caudill was 10 when her alcoholic mother shot herself.
“Sometimes,” Caudill says, “I think I’m doing this for both of us.”
She was 14 when a friend’s van left the road at 69 mph, skidded 240 feet and left her paralyzed from the neck down.
She learned quickly to ask for what she needed, because of course she needed everything.
Mentors such as retired Judge Benjamin McInturff, who will introduce her today, and the Rev. John Hurley helped her get scholarships to Gonzaga Prep and then Spokane Community College, Gonzaga University and Gonzaga Law School. At each turn, the Sullivans and others volunteered to help.
“They taught me unconditional love,” Caudill says.
Technology assisted. Aides once had to turn the pages of her school books. By the time she went to law school, staff at Winston & Cashatt were able to scan every page of her textbooks into a computer. Co-workers customized computers at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Caudill uses a voice-activated computer and another with a “Head Mouse,” a dot on her forehead that prompts the computer. She operates her motorized wheelchair by pushing a control with her chin.
She’s been an outspoken proponent for the disabled and the poor, serving on the boards of St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute and Career Path Services.
“She’s been an incredible advocate,” says Debra Hanks, administrator at St. Luke’s.
“She grew up like we want all our girls to grow up,” says Hurley.
Yet Caudill faces potential catastrophes almost daily that she calls “Hollyisms.” Typical was an incident last month when she flew to Spokane from San Diego. Over her protests, airline staff members opened her wheelchair battery for security reasons, causing a fire. She was confined to bed for eight days while it was being repaired.
Finding good around-the-clock care also has been difficult. For the first time, Caudill will earn enough to pay for all her care herself, without state aid. Such determination is typical, Hurley says.
“There are all kinds of people who are miserable who can walk around,” says Caudill. “I look at people imprisoned by their inability to make changes in their life for the better.”
She has learned to listen to her own internal voice to know what she and others need. And she surrounds herself with happy, positive people.
It is possible, she says, to create your own world.
When two close friends died in their 20s nearly a decade ago, Caudill says she almost did give up.
“I was determined to go back to bed and say, ‘this hurts too much.”’ She didn’t. Others helped her through law school and to become an assistant U.S. attorney. She wants to get married someday. She wants to adopt children.
“We can’t survive in this world without help from other people,” she says. “There is incredible healing through helping.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo