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Turning Tragedy Into Opportunity

Published October 2021 | In Fall 2021

Sometimes a life-altering event has unexpected results. For Leah Nixon, tragedy was the muse that inspired her to take her art seriously.

Turning Tragedy Into Opportunity Media

Leah Nixon has an edgy sense of humor, which comes in handy when writing and designing a line of greeting cards. But humor was an absolute necessity during her long, painful recovery from an accident that left her paralyzed below the armpits and required doctors amputate one of her legs.

An example of Leah’s humor: while describing how she felt about being transferred to Craig Hospital in Denver, one of the world’s best spinal cord injury rehabilitation centers, Leah said, “It sounded so magical to go from being a slug in a bed to, like, being able to do laundry and drive again.”

Did she really feel like a slug in a bed?

“Actually, I told my family I felt like a rotisserie chicken on a bed of ice,” she deadpans.

A year before her accident, Leah and her sister, Grace Nixon Peterson, became partners in Tiny and Snail, a company that designs and prints greeting cards, postcards, stickers and other products. Grace had started the company, at the time selling hand-painted cards. The work was hard on her wrists, so Leah began helping out.

“I told her ‘I think we should go into business together. I can be your hands, and you can be my brain,’” Leah recalled.

The sisters, 32 months apart in age, were already close. But collaborating on cards and running the business brought them even closer together, even though Leah lives in Rapid City and Grace lives in Milwaukee.

The Accident

In 2018, Tiny and Snail wasn’t paying the bills, so Leah kept her day job working construction in Rapid City. On August 14, 2018, a forklift tipped over at a job site, crushing her and severing her spine.

Grace remembers the terrible phone call from her mother about the accident. “I remember wailing on the couch that night with my husband, and he just held me and I said, ‘God, you have to let her live and you have to let her still use her hands.’ It was definitely the worst day of all of our lives, and it was difficult flying to see Leah, just hanging by an absolute thread.”

Leah was in the intensive care unit at Rapid City Hospital for 29 days. With a breathing tube in her throat and under anesthetic, Leah was unable to speak. She communicated by tracing letters on Grace’s palm.

Her first question: “Can I still draw?”

Grace Nixon Peterson and Leah Nixon have built Tiny and Snail into a successful business, marketing directly to customers online at tinyandsnail.com. Their Instagram account, @tiny_and_snail, has been well received.

Both Leah and Grace draw the images and write the text for their products. Sometimes they collaborate. Sometimes they work separately. However all of their cards, stamps, stickers and other designs share the same smart, simply worded and brightly illustrated style.

More recently, Grace and Leah have been focusing on the wholesale side of their business, selling through retailers and gift shops.

Gifts With Heart, the gift shop in the lobby at Monument Health Rapid City Hospital, is a Tiny and Snail outlet.

ICU Dance Party

Leah later graduated to writing on paper with a Sharpie. She started telling jokes to put the family at ease. “It was really funny because we’re just kind of waiting on pins and needles, and then I say something totally unexpected and the tension just goes away.” Leah recalled.

Grace added, “It was like the joy was amplified because the pain was amplified.”

Even though Leah was very weak, the neurosurgeon urged her to keep using her arms at least once every hour to stop the paralysis from advancing.

“My family was kind of militant about it, but I said, ‘This would be a lot easier if we turn on some music.’ So then we started having dance parties in the ICU. The nurses would join in sometimes,” Leah said.

After recovering enough to travel, Leah was flown to Craig Hospital in Denver where she began her long recovery and extensive rehabilitation.

Life Today

Leah lives in Rapid City with her husband, Kelsey Fitzgerald, and her dogs, Lucy and Ryder. In June of 2021, Leah gave birth to a baby girl named Ellie Grace Nixon Fitzgerald.

Family remains very important to Leah. She lives a couple miles from her parents and talks often with her siblings. Every year on August 14, the whole family gathers to celebrate — not mourn — the anniversary of Leah’s accident. “From the get-go, we decided to reclaim that day and make it a celebration,” Grace said. “We call it ‘Leah Lived Day.’”

Despite her strength, humor and family ties, Leah said it’s hard to accept she still lives every day in extreme pain. People assume if someone is paralyzed they have no feeling. The reality, at least for Leah, is that she spends every waking moment feeling like she’s receiving electric shock or sitting in ice water.

“When I go to the doctor, they always ask me to describe my pain on a scale of 1 to 10… You would need letters to describe my pain; you can’t put it on a scale of 1 to 10,” she said.

In spite of her pain, Leah and Grace feel the accident has transformed their art and their lives. Leah loved art before, but wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. The accident let her truly focus on what she loves.

Grace believes Leah’s accident brought new depth and compassion to their creations at Tiny and Snail.

“There’s something about being thrown into this crazy life situation and traveling to the depths of tragedy,” she said. “I think it’s just given us such an empathy for being human and enduring the hard things that can happen. That’s helped us create art that gives others the words to support each other.”

In addition to Tiny & Snail’s greeting cards, Leah recently illustrated a children’s book.

“Best Day Ever” was written by award-winning author Marilyn Singer. It’s about a boy’s adventures with his energetic dog, and how they go from a bad day to making it the best day ever.

The young boy happens to be in a wheelchair, and the book’s publisher wanted an artist in a wheelchair to illustrate it. Leah thinks it was the perfect story to be her first book.