March 25, 2011 — -- It's what many girls picture when they think of their wedding day: walking down the aisle with Dad and smiling into their husband's face during their first dance as man and wife.
And it's what Jen Darmon hopes to achieve April 16, when she marries Mike Belawetz, although doctors told her she never would walk again after a horrible car crash.
Darmon was a pretty and active bank teller from Windsor, Canada, and Belawetz, a handsome and shy paramedic who did more than his share of banking. The year was 2006 and Belawetz was going to the bank three times a week.
"Obviously she's a very, very pretty girl, which was the main attraction," he said, and that "kept me going to the bank."
Darmon said that after a month or two of casual conversations at the bank, he'd still not asked her out, so she took the initiative.
"I slipped him a note with my number on it," she said.
He called and their relationship blossomed.
Then tragedy struck in 2008.
The couple was on a road trip with friends when a car traveling in the opposite direction hit their van head-on. Their van rolled over repeatedly before it landed off the side of the road. Everyone got out of the vehicle but Darmon.
"I couldn't feel my legs," she said. "I went into hysterics. I was screaming and crying and not really knowing what was going on."
Belawetz carefully removed her from the vehicle and she was airlifted to a nearby hospital. Darmon had suffered a major spinal cord injury; doctors said she would never walk again.
"I didn't really fully comprehend the full extent of it," she said. "I still saw it as a temporary thing. You know, it will all go away. I'll get better. I'll walk again. No big deal."
Darmon said it took a while for reality to sink in.
"I just still thought ... 'This is not my life,'" she said.
She endured numerous surgeries and grueling three-hour physical therapy sessions three times a week. She made the 45-minute drive from her home in Windsor, Canada, to the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan in Detroit in her car, which had been modified so she could accelerate using a hand crank.
A Marriage Proposal
She also battled lingering concerns that her injuries were too much for Belawetz.
"I told him a few times, 'You don't have to stay if this is something you don't think you want in your life for the rest of your life,'" Darmon said. "I figured that I would spare him."
But Belawetz's commitment remained. He was there for every small step and every medical milestone.
"The accident made me realize that if there is something you want to do, do it while you can," he said. "If you have people close to you, let them know."
And so he did, in the form of a marriage proposal in 2010 on the couple's four-year anniversary.
"She's just a big part of my life," Belawetz said. "I wouldn't want to be without her, no matter what."
Now, Darmon has her sights set on walking down the aisle with her father -- and her brother -- and the couple's first dance.
"You know, picturing your wedding, you don't picture rolling down the aisle," she said. "You picture the walk with your dad. It's the most important thing. I will be walking down the aisle. It's not an if or a maybe. It's absolutely going to happen."
With the use of braces, Darmon has been practicing dancing and walking during her physical therapy sessions. A physical therapist lent her wedding dress to Darmon so she could learn to walk without seeing her feet.
"Normally ... I see the step that the one foot takes and then I'm confident to take the next step," she said. "With the dress on, I can't see my feet anymore. ... I just have to go with it."
Katie McSween May, the physical therapist, said she was more than happy to help Darmon.
"[The dresses] are meant to be worn, so I'm glad that it's helping her with her confidence and helping her feel beautiful on her wedding day," McSween May said.
The groom also is pleased.
"Any way she gets there -- she can fly to the altar -- as long as she makes it there, I'm happy," Belawetz said.