Dwayne Stowell was just a high school senior when his life was instantly changed.
While on a road trip with friends on Dec. 11, 1983, a drunken driver crossed the median in his Oldsmobile and hit the car that Stowell and his friends were traveling in from Mexico to Texas.
Soon after the accident, Stowell fell into a coma that lasted for eight weeks. His doctors did not expect him to live because of traumatic head injuries caused from hitting his head in the accident, Stowell said. When they realized he would survive, they predicted that he would never walk again, he said.
“Six months later I walked out of the hospital without any help and without any pain,” Stowell said.
While he regained the use of his legs, Stowell had to face the challenge of dealing with speech impairment from his injuries and other effects from the accident.
When out of the coma, Stowell was released from a hospital in Midland, Texas. Immediately, he was sent to a rehab center in Colo. for physical and occupational therapy.
When came out of his coma, he remembered his mother speaking to him while he was in the hospital, Stowell said.
One of the best things you can do for someone who is in a coma is to talk to them as much as possible, said Connie Little, Stowell’s mother and the owner of Little Flower Shop in Mesa.
She talked to her son consistently and stayed at his side night and day for weeks, she said. Support is critical for someone in that state, and if they don’t feel that they have support, they might give up, Little said.
Learning how to speak again was her son’s biggest challenge in rehab, Little said. However, he has a phenomenal sense of humor that got him through it, she said.
Before the accident, her son was not very outgoing. But now he is the complete opposite, especially with customers where he works, she said.
Stowell has met other parents whose children have been in comas for long periods of time, and he tells them to do exactly what his mother did, he said. Her emotional support got through to him and was a significant factor in his survival, he said.
Today, Stowell is a photo technician and cashier at a Walgreens pharmacy in Gilbert, where he has worked since 2006. Before his job at Walgreens, he worked at the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Wal-mart Stores Inc., and Outback Steakhouse.
His outgoing nature is also present in his other “job” – as the Queen’s guard at the annual Arizona Renaissance Festival, in nearby Gold Canyon. This weekend marks the end of Stowell’s second year as part of the Festival, and Saturday and Sunday (March 30 and 31) are the final days of this year’s finale weekend.
At the rehab center in Colo., therapists tried to have patients focus on one goal to look forward to, Stowell said. He turned his love of photography into that goal, and took pictures whenever he could.
When he returned to Texas, Stowell entered one of his photos taken while in rehab in a state competition and won first place for landscape shots.
“The judge said my work was compared to the work of Ansel Adams, one of the best black and white photographers,” Stowell said. That was one of the biggest compliments he has ever received, he said.
Photography became Stowell’s main interest, which led him to get an associates degree in photography from the New York Institute of Photography after he graduated high school.
Stowell tried to pursue his dream of becoming a photographer at several studios, but they all turned him down, he said. They all commended him for his work but refused to hire him because they thought he would not be able to communicate well with customers, he said.
Ironically, communicating with customers is now one of Stowell’sstrongest talents as a cashier, in spite of his speech disability.
“His personality is incredible. He’s always talking to people and trying to get to know them better,” said Rick Kies, a Walgreens manager and one of Stowell’s supervisors.
“It’s very hard to fit in to today’s society,” Stowell said when describing living with his disabilities.
Sometimes people are rude and ask what’s wrong with him when they hear him speak, he said.
Even though some customers can be judgmental, some are very dedicated fans of Stowell – so much so that they’ll drive from Tempe to buy cigarettes at Walgreens just because he’s there, Stowell said.
“That’s why I take the time to get to know people,” he said with a wink.
Stowell did not let anything hinder him from moving forward after the accident, he said. Even though he missed a semester of high school, he was able to graduate because he had already completed enough credits, he said.
He described himself as a high school student who got straight A’s in math. His love for school was illustrated when he told the ambulance driver on the scene of the accident to call his high school to let them know he wouldn’t be at class the next day, he said.
Though he was an A student in math class, Stowell received C’s in English, he said. However, now he has improved his writing skills through his love of poetry.
He often writes poems and shares them with his coworkers, family and friends, he said.
“I proved my English teacher wrong,” he said, laughing.
Stowell also established an interest in medieval times, which led him last year to join the cast of the Renaissance Festival cast. He loves his role as the queen’s guard because he loves everything about that era, he said.
Throughout everything he has been through, it’s important to keep your head up and keep smiling, Stowell said.
“His persistence is incredible,” Kies said.
Saturday and Sunday (March 30-31) mark the final days of the 2013 Arizona Renaissance Festival and Artisan Marketplace. The Festival is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., rain or shine. Parking is free, but no pets are allowed. For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.royalfaires.com/arizona.