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Oak Harbor woman’s independence comes at a high price

Alex and Shawna Alzina cozy up in their living room in their home in Oak Harbor. Shawna’s legs were amputated when she was 3, and the couple is trying to raise money for a special minivan that Shawna can drive on her own while Alex is deployed with the Navy. - Katie McVicker/Whidbey News-Times
Alex and Shawna Alzina cozy up in their living room in their home in Oak Harbor. Shawna’s legs were amputated when she was 3, and the couple is trying to raise money for a special minivan that Shawna can drive on her own while Alex is deployed with the Navy.
— image credit: Katie McVicker/Whidbey News-Times

Oak Harbor resident Shawna Alzina is 24 years old and still pines for independence.

When Shawna was 3 years old, she had a bi-lateral knee amputation on both of her legs due to complications from kyphosis and scoliosis, which both involve harmful curvatures of the spine. But the amputation was only the beginning of many medical problems to come.

Shawna has had 30 major and minor surgeries throughout her life with 28 occurring before she was 8 years old. She had two major operations to repair and augment her bladder, an open heart surgery to fix holes in her heart, two spinal fusions and a surgery to remove one of her kidneys which was retaining water.

“The staff at my hospital always joke that my chart is like three feet high,” Shawna said.

Shawna spent the majority of her childhood in hospitals and said they feel like her second home. But despite the numerous health problems that have been thrown at her, Shawna remains an upbeat, humorous and energetic woman and an extremely loving wife to her husband of two years, military man Alex Alzina, who is stationed at the base in Oak Harbor. Shawna and Alex met in an AOL chatroom when they were just barely teenagers, and though one lived in Madison, Wis. and the other in Las Vegas, they developed a close relationship. However, after about a year, the pair lost touch.

“I thought that was it,” Shawna said.

But six years later, she received a friend request on Facebook from Alex, who had been searching for her online during the years. Alex said he’d randomly type her name into search engines and email any matches he found hoping it’d be the right girl. When he finally located Shawna, the two immediately rekindled their old bond, spent about six hours every day on the phone and were married months later.

Now the pair lives happily in base housing in Oak Harbor, but when Alex gets deployed, things get tough for Shawna.

“I have more worries than the normal military wife,” Shawna said. “Of course I miss my husband, but I also don’t have the independence of everyone else.”

Because the Alzinas are currently surviving on one income, they cannot afford the special driving equipment Shawna needs to operate a vehicle. Island Transit doesn’t stop at the commissary, so when Alex is deployed, which he was for seven of the last 15 months, Shawna has to go down to the store in her wheelchair and can only carry back about $50 worth of groceries which she has to hook to the back of her handlebars.

“It’s nerve-wracking,” she said.

Shawna said what makes things even more difficult is that she has to cut through fields to get to the sidewalks, and if it’s been raining or wet, her chair can’t make it through the mud and soft ground. Additionally, Shawna said often she needs things that the Navy store doesn’t carry and she has to venture farther away to Albertsons or Walmart, and if a medical emergency were to occur, she’d be stuck.

“I worry about her all the time when I’m gone,” Alex said. “The last time I was gone she hurt her arm and her arms function as her legs, so I was sent home within 12 hours.”

Shawna explained that the couple has made few close friends since their recent move to Washington, and that both of their families still live across the country and can’t drop commitments to family and work whenever Alex gets deployed. But even if they could, Shawna said she doesn’t want to feel dependent on someone else.

The Alzinas are trying to raise money to purchase an adapted minivan that Shawna can drive on her own. Though they’re looking at used vans and the cheapest models they can find, with the accessories Shawna needs, such as a ramp and hand controls, the cost easily reaches $30,000.

To help raise money for the vehicle, Shawna created a website that tells her story and allows people to donate to her cause. As of January, about $900 had been collected. She hopes that someday soon she’ll be able to attend school and study either computer forensics or law.

“I just want to be able to do something whether it’s work or volunteer,” Shawna said. “I’m not getting any younger.”

Lend a hand

To learn more about the Alzinas or to make a donation toward the minivan, visit http://help-shawna-drive.info/Home.php.

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