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Two-time graduate of Mary Free Bed authors book on harrowing recovery

74-year-old Yo Bellingar is being treated by the same MFB doctors, 20-years later.
Posted at 6:34 PM, Jun 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-13 18:58:32-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — 74-year-old Yulanda Bellingar, who goes by ‘Yo’ to her friends, has quite a story. When we meet her at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in downtown Grand Rapids on Monday, she’s hard at work with her therapist, retraining her body today by making a bag of popcorn.

After a grueling process to get it in the microwave, she sits down as it pops.

“You feel like you’ve run a marathon,” she says, as she and her therapist high-five.

This isn’t the first time Yo has called Mary Free Bed home – not the first time she’s had to reteach her body basic functions. To tell her story properly, you have to understand Yo’s love of flying. It’s a love that took over when she was in high school and despite being turned away from an Air Force pilot opportunity for being a woman, and a commercial airline job for being too short, it’s a love she always held on to.

She spent her life as a barber in the family business, feet firmly planted on the ground. It wasn’t until after retirement that Yo looked up and saw the answer to her long-wanted wish.

“It looked like a parachute going over with a little three-wheeled go cart attached,” she said. “So I went over there, got a test flight, and I was hooked. I was hooked.”

What Yo saw was a power parachute, an aircraft that can run you at around 35 mph a few thousand feet off the ground for three hours on just ten gallons of gasoline. She took to it instantly, even getting her commercial license. Her license number was 001 – no female in Michigan had ever tried for it before Yo.

But even with years of experience, one day, twenty years ago, Yo and a friend were out flying when the power parachute lost its engine. Despite her best efforts, Yo brought the aircraft own in a tree-lined ridge near St. Ives golf course. Her friend broke an ankle and cracked her sternum. Yo passed out on impact.

“I was knocked unconscious and when I came out of it, I asked if she was okay an she said 'yeah, are you?' And I go, 'I can’t feel anything from the waist down,'” said Yo.

She was paralyzed from the waist down, unable to move an inch. After a number of surgeries, Yo wound up at Mary Free Bed. For weeks, she worked with therapists. Alongside her grandson, who was learning to walk, Yo took her own baby steps at first, then a few more, and eventually walked out of the hospital on her own.

It was a miraculous recovery that she was compelled to put down on paper after she left.

“When I got home, I kept getting this, you know like, this nudge…come on write this book,” she said.

And she did. After seven years of writing, Yo published her book. It even had its own spot in the Mary Free Bed gift shop for a while.

The work chronicles her time flying, her family life and her harrowing but successful recovery. It also is a bit of a thank you to her doctors and nurses, especially her lead physician Dr. Sam Ho.

Life went on for two decades. Yo lost her husband to cancer, and watched her children and grandchildren grow. But a few weeks ago, while doing some yard work with an all-terrain vehicle, Yo made the simple error of mistaking the gas for the brake.

“[It went] backwards, over the first retaining wall, down and hit a tree,” said Yo. “That stopped the ATV and I kept going through the back window.”

Yo broke her neck, back and left leg. Amazingly, because spines harden when they heal, her doctors – including Dr. Ho, who still works at Mary Free Bed – said her first injury may have saved her from a more severe second one.

Though her recovery has been grueling, it’s going well. Yo will leave Mary Free Bed on Tuesday and says, all things considered, she was happy to see some familiar friendly faces.

“21 years ago I took care of her, isn’t it amazing?” said Dr. Ho. “I told her, I don’t trust her in anything with motors,” he went on with a chuckle.

“You just can’t go, woe is me, why did it happen to me?” said Yo. “It’s almost like, maybe it happened for a reason again to help other people.”

The book certainly was cathartic for Yo. She said it helped clear her mind as her body healed. In the back, after the book ends, Yo put in a section for those who need the book most – a journal section of sorts, complete with space to write your thoughts, goals, and notes from a doctor.

While Yo wants to keep the same high-flying spirit that’s kept her going through so much adversity, she admits, it might be time for a new activity, with less activity.

“I think I maybe better stick to playing cards or something, I don’t know,” she laughed. “I think I’ll be maybe stronger for it. What doesn’t break you makes you stronger.”

To get a copy of Yo’s book, send her an email at