SOUTH OGDEN, Utah — Any Church Educational System administrator would have called it a model classroom atmosphere.
As the teacher spoke about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and energy drinks, his teenage students sat forward with scriptures open, eyes focused on the front of the room. A warm, wholesome feeling filled the room while gospel-themed pictures and quotations looked down from the walls.
Dressed in a white shirt, tie and V-neck sweater, Jeremy Chatelain encouraged class participation as he rolled around the room in his customized power wheelchair. “I would rather hear you than me,” the LDS seminary instructor said, smiling.
Chatelain is grateful to be in the classroom considering an accident almost took his life 13 years ago. The road to recovery was like climbing Mt. Everest, but he did it with the help of his faithful wife, loved ones and modern technology.
The cheerful 37-year-old is also grateful to be a father. The couple worked tirelessly to adopt two “treasures.” One of the children has already survived a battle with cancer.
Despite the adversity in his life, Chatelain remains steadfast with faith and hope for better days to come. A favorite quote by Elder Neal A. Maxwell helps him keep everything in perspective: “How can we truly acknowledge the Fatherhood of God and refuse his tutorials? … We can’t withdraw from all of life’s courses and still really stay enrolled in school!”
Intro to adversity 101
Life’s possibilities seemed limitless for the Chatelains in the spring of 1998.
As the couple approached their first anniversary, Jeremy completed his seminary student teaching and graduated from Weber State. Major rejoicing followed when he was hired as a full-time seminary instructor and assigned to teach in Blackfoot, Idaho. His wife, Connie, attended Ogden-Weber Applied Technology College and became certified as a medical assistant. They eagerly drove to Blackfoot to meet the seminary principal and put money down on a home.
Before embarking on their new chapter in life, Jeremy and Connie traveled to Emmett, Idaho, to be with his family as it celebrated the impending missionary departure of Alex Chatelain, Jeremy’s little brother.
It was family tradition to float down the Payette River on black inner tubes. Everyone was having a delightful time as they goofed and splashed down the river to a favorite bridge where they waited for their ride.
The bridge stood about 15 feet above the water. In years of bridge jumping, nobody ever hit the bottom of the river, Jeremy said. Playing around, Connie leaped feet first and water sprayed below. When Jeremy dove head first after her, he had no clue the river was only about six feet deep in that spot.
“I still remember closing my eyes and taking a deep breath,” he said. “I don’t remember hitting the bottom, but that’s OK. Some things in life you just don’t want to remember.”
Chatelain entered the water like a torpedo. The impact forced his chin into his chest, crushing his fifth and sixth vertebrae and causing immediate paralysis. His head split open in places, and teeth were also chipped.
With his stunned family looking on, he surfaced in a dead man’s float and couldn’t breathe or move. Blood swirled in the water. He thought he might die right there.
“I wasn’t afraid to die," he said. "My life didn’t flash before my eyes, but I knew if I went to the spirit world that day, I would miss Connie for a long time."
But death didn’t come. Jeremy was pulled from the river, and he was eventually transported by helicopter to a neurosurgeon in Boise, where he underwent surgery and was later stabilized.
His epic climb to recovery and a new life was about to begin.
Overcoming discouragement 102
The months that followed were a blur of doctors, hospital rooms and rehab at the University of Utah for the young couple. The fact that Jeremy was now a quadriplegic was a difficult reality to face, Connie said.
"It really wasn’t a pleasant time," she said. "It seemed endless and all-consuming, but we had a lot of family and friends who reached out to us. That was a highlight that brought us a lot of cheer."
Connie stayed by Jeremy’s side and assisted medical personnel as needed. As the swelling on his spinal cord decreased, feeling slowly returned to his biceps.
Discouragement came easy for the couple, but having a sense of humor lifted their spirits. For example, Jeremy had to be turned over several times during the night to avoid bedsores.
“I felt like a piece of bacon,” he said. “It was so repetitious that I wondered when I was going to get crispy.”
He was replaced at the Blackfoot seminary because he obviously couldn’t teach. He couldn’t even feed himself. The Chatelains were asked if they still wanted to buy the home in Blackfoot, and despite not completely knowing how they would do it, a major decision was made.
“One night Connie and I just talked late into the night,” he said. “We realized the Lord knew this would happen before it did. I don’t believe he caused the accident; that was something I did. Gravity was on that day. The Lord could have just as easily assigned us to be down in Utah. We figured there was some reason he gave us Blackfoot. We decided we would go up anyway.”
In October 1998, Jeremy checked out of the hospital to become acclimated to life as a quadriplegic. Going to Idaho proved to be the right move as many things fell into place over the next few years.
Curiously, their home was already built with the extra wide, wheelchair-friendly doors, and few adjustments were necessary. Ward members welcomed the Chatelains with open arms. Later on, the couple secured funds through the Idaho Division of Vocational Rehabilitation for a wheelchair van.
The next significant step was learning to work again.
He was determined to assume his career in the CES. He started by teaching one class as a volunteer. He arranged a system to get to and from school. Every day he prepared his lessons. A student sat next to him in class and turned the pages of his scriptures. Each day Connie sent a big bed sheet that was draped over Jeremy at lunch while he used an adapted fork to get food into his mouth on his own. But before long, however, someone took over, and by the end there was a mess to clean up.
“I was a pitiful sight,” he said. “I kept telling everybody I wanted to teach full-time again. That was my goal. Everybody kind of smiled at me and said, ‘Yeah, good luck with that.’”
He didn’t give up. Over the next seven years, his stamina increased, and he was able to do a little more each day. In 2005 he was once again elevated to full-time status and assigned to Bonneville High School. He currently teaches five classes, including the students with disabilities.
“As we look back now, the Lord really did know what we needed,” Jeremy said of his time in Idaho.
But there was another important reason the Chatelains were assigned to Utah.
Advanced lessons in adversity 103
The Chatelains started their family while they lived in Blackfoot. After a long, arduous process they were blessed to adopt a baby girl they named Sarah after Abraham’s wife in the Bible, which means “Princess of the Lord.”
“Sarah is one of our greatest treasures,” Connie said.
Sarah was walking and talking just before her second birthday when she became sick with a barky cough. Croup was going around the ward, so her parents figured it would pass but antibiotics didn’t help. Three weeks later they noticed her head was swollen. Something was clearly very wrong.
They went to the emergency room on a Sunday morning. After chest X-rays and blood work, the doctor found the Chatelains with tears in his eyes.
“He couldn’t even talk to me. He just shook his head,” Jeremy recalled. “He said there is a pretty good chance she has leukemia.”
More tests at Primary Children’s Medical Center confirmed the worst. Chemotherapy started the next day. For the next three years Connie took Sarah to Primary Children’s for week-long stays that included chemo and radiation treatments.
“She was brave and as strong as can be,” Jeremy said of his daughter.
Eventually Sarah’s health returned. The family is happy to report the cancer has been in remission for four years.
After adopting Sarah, it took another five years to adopt her little brother, Dallin.
The adoption process can drag on for some couples because involves making a profile that birth parents can review when selecting a home for a baby. If the birth parents aren’t interested in a couple’s profile, it can take a long time to be selected.
“There are more couples than children being placed," Connie said. "You hope your chance will come."
Their prayers were answered when a call came from LDS Family Services, and a meeting with a couple and the birth mother's family was arranged. After introductions, the mother of the birth mother showed them a cellphone picture of her daughter as a young girl standing on the back of her grandpa’s wheelchair. Soon thereafter they adopted Dallin, now almost a year old.
“She had good memories of her grandpa in a wheelchair," Connie said. "She had grown up with that, and it was something that didn’t bother them. He fits right in with us.”
Ongoing course: Hope for better days
Back in the classroom, Jeremy Chatelain listened intently as a teenage girl on the front row described a time when her father offered her alcohol and she said no.
He praised her courage and shared an experience of his own. The students were captivated.
When class ended and the students departed, Chatelain spent a few minutes on his laptop, clicking the mouse pad with his right hand. Then the dedicated teacher cruised into his office where he demonstrated how computer software allows him to dictate his lesson plans.
He wears wrist braces to provide more stability for his arms. Strategically placed pieces of Velcro help him hold items. When it's time to leave, he pulls a string attached to the door to pull it shut, then maneuvers his powered wheelchair outside to his customized van and drives home.
He is very tech savvy, said Jared Jones, a fellow Bonneville seminary instructor. Those skills are helping Jeremy earn a doctorate degree at the University of Utah.
“It’s just a matter of trying to figure out how to do what everybody else does to compete, especially on a school level,” said Chatelain, who especially enjoys digital books. “But I have to do it only using 10 percent of my body. I find ways, usually.”
Each time he welcomes a new class, Chatelain likes to take day to tell his story and let students ask questions so they feel comfortable around him. Curiously, they all want to know how he goes to the bathroom. He also instructs them how to shake his hand.
He hopes others will see him as just a normal person.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, I don’t know how you do it. We couldn’t do it if we were you,'" he said. "We are no different that anybody else. We get up every morning and put one wheel in front of the other."
The Chatelains are quick to acknowledge the numerous friends and family who help them in so many ways. “We can’t do it alone,” he said.
Some are amazed that Connie remained with Jeremy after the accident. When these people ask how she does it, she simple replies, “temple covenants.”
When she isn’t busy with the kids or household duties, she has fun as the junior varsity girls tennis coach at Weber High School.
There is no super secret to overcoming life’s challenges; you just get through it, she says.
She draws inspiration each day from a picture she hangs in her home of storm clouds hovering over an LDS temple and the words “When the storms of life gather ‘round, keep things in the eternal perspective.”
The message helps her keep everything in perspective: “While eternal things go on inside, life goes on outside,” Connie said.
Jeremy loves the words of Ether 12:4: “Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God.”
Jeremy’s little brother, Alex, is also a seminary teacher. He admires the way his brother has handled the adversity in his life. When teaching about the Resurrection, he likes to hear students respond to the question: “Who do you know that would likely be the most excited for the Resurrection?”
“I always tell them about my big brother,” he said.
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