Dawn had one more surprise

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By Amy Ryffel-Kragh

She really didn’t see it coming. But not like a year ago when she was shot five times during a bungled burglary and left paralyzed. Her recent moment in the spotlight was not about her tragedy, but rather about her triumph.

Last Friday, Dawn was a special guest on Live with Regis and Kelly’s Mom’s Dream Come True show. Out of thousands of letters, she was one of four mothers chosen for the annual Mother’s Day special. Her husband Sgt. 1st Class Michael Weiss wrote a heart-rending letter to the show explaining what his wife meant to him and to their family.

Michael’s almost three-page letter to the talk show began like this: “My name is Sergeant First Class Weiss and I am writing to nominate a hero; someone who has inspired many by simply being herself ee my wife, Dawn.”

Two weeks prior to the show, an unexpected Dawn received her first surprise of the big reveal. Without Dawn’s knowledge, her husband set the plan into motion. Michael enlisted some of his Army “buddies.” The group of men met at Queen of Peace Catholic Church and waited for producers from the Regis and Kelly show.

The group went to Dawn’s parents’ home, where the family of four is staying. With the cameras rolling, Michael and their daughters, 10-year-old Kayla and 7-year-old Destyni, went inside to get Dawn.

“I had no clue,” she said of the surprise. As the garage door opened, Dawn was wheeled to her parent’s driveway. On the video you can quietly hear her say, “Oh my gosh, what’s going on daddy,” the name she often calls Michael.

The devoted husband got on one knee and told his wife how much he loves her and about writing to Regis and Kelly. As the soldiers marched up the driveway, Michael gave them the go-ahead.

As they marked time in the driveway, they chanted a special cadence. The marching ditty told of what was in store for the somewhat in shock young mother – the verses telling Dawn she was chosen for the show, the family would be going to New York – and taking a Disney cruise to the Bahamas.

A completely surprised Dawn could not believe it. “I had been wanting a Disney cruise for years,” she said.

On to the Big Apple

Last Tuesday the family flew to New York. The first time visitors to the Big Apple tried New York pizza and stayed across from Central Park West, a place Dawn called “very calm.”

“I think it was one of my favorite parts,” of the trip, she said. Dawn also liked not getting stares because of being in her chair. In the diverse and busy city, “nobody stares at you, nobody looks at you,” she said. Although she knows people are probably just curious about why she is in the chair, she still struggles with it.

Wednesday it was time to make their appearance on Live with Regis and Kelly. While they were waiting, a nervous Dawn kept checking to make sure she looked okay.

As they sat in the green room, the family did not know what was going outside. After receiving the cruise two weeks prior, Dawn said she assumed they were coming on the show to tell her story.

But, there was a lot more to it.

After Michael wrote the letter the producers talked with him and he outlined some of his wife’s dreams. “My wife’s dream of being in a triathlon may be put on hold for a while, but she hopes one day to be in a special wheelchair made for cycling to race in the widely known Peachtree race that she was able to witness during her stay in rehab,” he wrote.

While they were backstage, a tape was rolling showing the audience Dawn’s story. The video showed commentary from Dawn, Michael, Trey Cooper, the neighbor who came to her rescue and Sgt. Lovely of the Norfolk Police Department, who worked the case. The video intertwined Dawn’s story with the four of them telling their part in it.

Before coming on stage the family and the audience saw the Disney cruise revealed a few weeks prior, which was taped in Ocala. On the stage they were introduced to the hosts and saw a video clip of ship they would be going on.

During the commercial break, Kelly praised Dawn. “You are such an amazing person,” Michael said the talk show host commented to his wife. The host also told Dawn she should write a book about her story.

After the break Regis mentioned the family’s medical bills, a house and Dawn’s tuition for school. And he mentioned that he thought he knew of someone who could help with expenses.

Then Kelly went behind a screen and returned with an oversized check in the amount of $100,000 from Kmart. Dawn and Michael were stunned. “My mouth was open and the flies were flying in and out,” he said. Michael dropped to his knees and the couple hugged and cried.

Last Friday morning the Weiss family saw the show for the first time with the rest of the world. They then realized what really happened while they were waiting in the green room.

“They did a wonderful job,” Michael said of the show’s staff. The ecstatic and grateful Weiss’ said everyone at the show was really nice.

The Road to Recovery

Her story sounds like a Lifetime movie or a Dateline episode. In May 2007, the then 30-year-old mother and her two daughters were robbed at gunpoint, while her husband was deployed in Iraq.

Living in Virginia four teenagers shot Dawn a point-blank range five times. She was left paralyzed from the chest down. But, she is fighting back.

Before the shooting Dawn was training for a triathlon and exercised regularly. She was able to bench press almost 100-pounds but when she went to rehab; Dawn could barely lift one pound.

Today, she is back in the gym and can bench press about 50 pounds. And she is back in the pool. She wore a life vest, at first, then one day she said, “I’m gonna sink or swim.” She took off the flotation device and swam.

Due to her spinal cord being “burned,” Dawn is in constant nerve pain. “Some days are worse than others,” she said. Even something a simple as a fan blowing on her body hurts.

She no longer has her washboard stomach and has no control over those muscles, leaving her unable to even sit up on her own. She now has use of her arms, but her hands are stiff. She describes pain in her arms as being lit on fire. To roll over at night, she has to wake Michael for help.

But, she is slowly regaining her independence. They recently had her Ford Mustang modified and she is able to drive the girls to school. With part of the money from the Regis and Kelly show, the family will buy a used, specially modified van.

Dawn also wants to get leg braces to help her do simple things like getting into the car or to reach a hard to get item out of the frig. But they will use the majority of the money to build a home which will accommodate her wheelchair, when the family moves back to Virginia in December.

As for her future aspirations, Dawn will return to school and wants to stay in the medical field. She was studying to be a radiologist technician, which she is no longer able to do. So, she wants to become a radiologist.

Although she has been through a wide range of emotions, Dawn is ready to tell her story. “I would love to get out and speak at high schools,” she said.

She has also been thinking about writing a book. “I did finally decide to sit down and start writing something,” she said. But “I don’t even know where to begin.”

With everything she has been through, she remains positive. She quoted something Michael says, “If life throws you lemons, you make lemonade.”

For more information about Dawn and her family visit www.dawnweiss.org.

Contact Amy Ryffel-Kragh at 854-3986 or akragh@newsrlsmc.com.