Leah Nixon Fitzgerald just had the best day ever!

October 27, 2021

Written By: Michelle Pawelski

Posted In: Elevate Magazine

Three years ago, Leah Nixon Fitzgerald was nearly killed in a work accident. The first words she traced on her sister Grace’s hand when she awoke were “Can I still draw?” 

It was at age 3 when Leah Nixon Fitzgerald first remembers loving art. In first grade, she sketched a raccoon in a cornfield and herself riding a dolphin into the sunset. “As long as I can remember, I have loved art,” Leah said. “My sister and I would sit next to each other and draw. We each got a side on the pantry door to put our artwork up. I have always loved it.” 

Leah, who is now paralyzed from the armpits down, is still creating. It has both helped her recovery from the accident, and provided new opportunities. In June, she debuted as a children’s book illustrator with the release of “Best Day Ever!” — a book written by award-winning author and poet Marilyn Singer and published by Clarion Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The book, about a boy in a wheelchair and his trusted companion, was released June 29, the same day Leah and her husband Kelsey Fitzgerald brought their daughter Ellie home from the hospital. With publishing dates pushed back due to COVID-19 and her daughter coming a month early, June 29 turned out to be Leah’s best day ever.  

“Five or six months after my accident, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) asked if I would want to illustrate this book about a boy, who just happens to be in a wheelchair, and his dog. They were looking for an illustrator in a wheelchair,” Leah said. “It was very exciting to work on.” 

The book was a dream job for Leah who realized after college that illustration was her preferred art medium. “It is just so magical,” she said. “You can make anything happen with an illustration.” She loves to communicate through her illustrations, such describing what it is like to be paralyzed. “A paralyzed body is a lot different, and illustration can help communicate what it feels like. It is a powerful tool that I wish was taught more intentionally, just like how to write.” 

Leah creates a daily comic about a weasel, something she started while attending Washington University in St. Louis. It was the first thing she drew after her accident while still in the intensive care unit. The illustration featured one of her doctors, ironically his name is Dr. Weasel. “I think I even gave him the drawing,” Leah chuckled. “I just remember having so much to communicate.” 

While Leah said illustration is now “her jam,” the 32-year-old Rapid City native has worked in many other areas of art. After graduating with her bachelor’s in fine arts, she was unsure of a clear career path. She worked with long-time local artist James Van Nuys on the Founding Father’s museum project, created desserts for Dakota Thyme, a former downtown deli, and started designing and building tiny houses. 

She started building her first tiny house in the backyard of her parents’ home with Kelsey, who was attending South Dakota Mines. When Kelsey got a job in Kentucky, Leah moved down south with him and their tiny house. “I learned a lot from that first build, and then I built an even tinier house down in Kentucky. I called it my tiny studio.” 

Homesick for her family and the Black Hills, Leah moved from Kentucky back to Rapid City with her tiny studio, parked it in her best friend’s backyard and lived in it for a year. “I learned so much about architecture and building,” Leah said of constructing tiny houses. “It was interesting how much overlap there was in designing for a tiny space and then designing for life in a wheelchair. It was just like these constraints you have to work within and then come up with the best solution. My brain loves that sort of puzzle.” 

Once back home, Leah decided to use her education in construction, and her artistic talents, and applied as a builder with the local Habitat for Humanity. “I was the only female, but I loved it. I worked with the guys, volunteers, and future homeowners. I ended up doing a lot of drywall, pouring sidewalks, siding, roofing, you name it, I was doing it.” 

On the same day she started at Habitat for Humanity, Leah and her sister Grace joined forces and launched a new stationary company, Tiny and Snail – a combination of both sisters’ loves: tiny houses and snail mail. 

The sisters’ business was just getting started when it took a detour. Leah was at a building site in August 2018 when a telehandler, a forklift with a long arm, slipped, crushing Leah underneath. “Luckily there was a Marine on site, and he jumped down and ran over to me tying his belt around my leg as a tourniquet. Otherwise, I would have bled out.” 

Leah was in the intensive care unit for 29 days, had 11 surgeries including the amputation of her right leg, and spent another six months in rehabilitation. During her time in the ICU, she proposed to Kelsey. “I could see us going through this together,” Leah said of proposing to Kelsey, who had asked her to marry him a few years earlier. “We love challenges and are both go-getters.” Aside from getting engaged, Leah said being in the ICU gave her a whole new appreciation for living in Rapid City. “The ICU was a very special time for my family. The community, in particular the Catholic School System, just surrounded my family.” 

Leah has embraced her new challenge, but each day is a struggle. Despite having no sensation or movement in her lower body, she deals with chronic nerve pain which feels like every cell in her body is buzzing with electricity. She misses trail running and the freedom to do everything she did prior to her accident. However, Leah is grateful she can still draw, paint and hand cycle, and tries to always look at the positive. 

“Among all the people I know, I am probably the best person to end up in a wheelchair. I am very patient and tenacious, and I find challenges fun and the design challenges of being in a wheelchair fun. Everyday life takes up a lot more time than ever before for me, but this is what I’ve been given, and I’m determined to make the most of my time here.” 

She is enjoying this new phase of life as a mother, illustrator, and businesswoman. 

“We just have this one life, and we can make it what we want it to be – might as well make it fun.”