Spotlight on: Suzie Skinner
By Ashley Daniels
Healing hands are Biblical. And, in the case of Suzie and Chris Skinner, her healing hands as a physical therapist for Chris led them to marriage – and led Chris to Christ.
In 2000, Chris was in a car accident in which the driver of the car he was riding in was drinking. Because of the accident, he broke his neck, which left him as a quadriplegic. He was a college student at Radford University in southwestern Virginia.
Suzie first met Chris at the rehab center he was admitted to in September of that year, working as his physical therapist for a couple months until he returned to college.
“He could only partially use his arms,” she says. “He couldn’t open or close his hands and his fingers didn’t function, so we did a lot of strengthening and got him a power wheelchair that he learned to use.”
The two kept in touch for just a bit the first few weeks after Chris finished therapy, and they reconnected in 2002, when he had to come back to the rehab center for something with his wheelchair.
“After that, he started calling me because his school was two hours away, and we started dating a couple months later, says Suzie.
She shares that, also during this time, Chris became a Christian, which was a year after his accident. It would be a life decision pivotal in his motivational speaking career.
“Chris’ personality was always very outgoing. He would talk to everyone, he was very funny, and just really fun to be around and full of life,” says Suzie. “He was very determined, too, and was a fighter. He would fight for everything. If he had a goal that he wanted to do, he would do it.”
For instance, six months after he broke his neck in the car accident, he went back to school and went on to graduate with a degree in counseling. This is despite his inability to use his hands to type or take notes. Suzie shares that, pre-accident, Chris had failed out of school because of too much partying. In fact, he and his friends had been caught smoking pot in his dorm room. Part of his disciplinary action was to go around to all the freshman classes and give a speech on the consequences of smoking pot in the dorm, but then the accident happened.
“So after he came back, the school probation officer contacted him and asked him if he would be interested in sharing his story to the freshman classes,” says Suzie. “He thought about it and he decided to do it, and once he did it, he loved it.”
It was another decision that spawned a successful motivational speaking career for Chris sharing his journey, his learning experience, to millions of students in colleges, high schools, middle schools, and church youth groups across the country. In 2004, Chris published an autobiography, “The Ultimate Learning Experience,” that captures his story by written word. It was the same year that Chris and Suzie got married.
“There was a handicap-accessible hiking trail in the mountains of Radford, and he proposed on this overlook,” she recalls. “Actually, now that I think about it, that was the trail we walked on our first date. I forgot about that.”
On Labor Day, September 6, 2021, Chris passed away at the age of 41 in a pool drowning accident in their community pool here in Myrtle Beach. In addition to his wife, Suzie, he left behind their fraternal twins, son and daughter, Caleb and Alethia, now 16.
“Chris always went to the pool and walked his dog,” she says. “If somebody was around, they would let him into the gate of the pool and he would go in there all the time. That day, I guess when he was driving [his wheelchair], nobody was there, and he got too close to the edge and fell in. … A neighbor had come to get me and, and she said, ‘You have to get to the pool right away,’ and I just had that instinct. I just knew.”
Three weeks after he died, Suzie returned to the pool, a place of happiness for their family every day of the summer since they moved to Myrtle Beach in 2013 when the twins were in first grade. She didn’t want to lose that happy place, so she did what Chris would have done in this time of turmoil: faced it head on. Caleb did the same, returning to the pool – both nervous and afraid – before she did a little over a week after Chris passed away.
“I didn’t really have a plan. My plan was to go to the pool when the kids weren’t around and just be inside the gate somewhere,” says Suzie. “But when I got there, I thought, ‘No, I’m going right where it happened and put a chair right where they did CPR and just face it at the edge. I looked down at the pool where I knew he fell in and where I had seen his wheelchair in the water and everything.
“I was sitting there looking at the water and I really wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, but then it popped into my head that this wasn’t a place where Chris died,” she continues. “This was a place where Chris saw Jesus’ face for the first time. Instead of being a place of death, it felt like this sacred, holy place because Chris was paralyzed for 21 years before he passed away. He suffered a ton of pain all the time, and he had wounds and infections and lots of medical issues, so he longed for heaven and getting a new body – not in a weird way, but in a healthy way.
“So to think about him finally getting to see Jesus, face to face, was a beautiful picture in my head and I realized that Jesus is always with us. He was with Chris in that water, and I could see Chris going down into the pool and then Jesus just scooping him up and taking him to heaven,” she continues. “You know, there are days when it’s cloudy, but you can see the sun rays in the sky going through the clouds, almost like they’re reaching towards the earth, like heaven is opening up because you can see the sun? That’s what it was like that day. And it just gave me so much peace.”
There are days that Suzie is sad, of course, going through the grief process as a single mom in life without Chris, but she says that day she faced the pool soaked up a bit of that depth of pain. The memories and legacy Chris left behind are happy and moving.
For instance, when the couple learned they were having twins from in vitro fertilization, Chris was scared to be a dad, when he couldn’t even hold a pencil, but the new parents got creative. They used adaptive plastic hooks to hold the baby bottles, so he could feed his baby twins, and added straps to his wheelchair, so he could hold one of the twins on his lap and one on his feet.
Because of Chris’ degree in counseling, there was never a time the family didn’t talk about things they’re afraid of, or what they’re sad or happy about – and that holds true today. Suzie is grateful for that strong communication and the Christian support system they have at Solid Rock Church at Market Common, where they have been members since 2018, and the twins’ school at Calvary Christian, where they attended since first grade.
“I think that over the last year and a half, what I’ve learned through going through this is that, if I’m feeling anxious, sad, overwhelmed, whatever emotion, the quicker I take it straight to Jesus and just talk to Jesus about it, the quicker I get back to peace,” says Suzie. “For me, that’s journaling everything I’m thinking and feeling. And, at some point by the end of writing it all down, Jesus comes in and gives me comfort or peace.
“It’s a big change to lose your husband when your kids are 14 and still have to work full-time to make enough money to support my family,” she continues. “I want to be strong for my kids, but I also want to be vulnerable and honest with them. I want to keep following Jesus. … I felt like I was in a position where I didn’t really have a choice: I either go to Jesus or I fall apart. … I don’t have time to waste, to sit around and let myself be sad, so I have to give it to Jesus so that I can get up the next morning and be loving and kind to my kids and go do my job and function on daily stuff.”
Today, Suzie still works as a physical therapist with quadriplegics, performing neurologic therapy at Tidelands Health at The Market Common location.
“It’s been helpful and good at times and it has also been extremely difficult at times,” she says. “It just depends on the day.”
For a copy of Chris Skinner’s book, “The Ultimate Learning Experience,” you can visit a variety of media platforms for either print or digital versions, including Amazon.