Treasures of the Valley

Death, and Resurrection, in La Tuna Canyon – Part 2

Last week I detailed the horrible accident that took the lives of four local teens on La Tuna Canyon Road in May 1971. Debbie Chevalier survived the crash but her fiancé didn’t. They were about to graduate from high school and be married.

Debbie was horribly mangled in the accident and was in a coma for two weeks; it was a miracle she lived. When she regained consciousness, she discovered that her school, Crescenta Valley High, had rallied behind her. Students planned fundraisers to raise money for her extensive hospital bills. The high school’s resident rock band put on a benefit concert at MacDonald Auditorium for her. Even the local 7-Eleven Debbie frequented established a fundraiser for her. Many teachers and students visited Debbie, including Bill Thomas, the principal of CV High. He brought her a yearbook signed by nearly the entire school.

One thing the doctors told Debbie at the hospital was that she would never walk again. For Debbie, it was not a discouragement but a challenge. Another senior had been horribly injured in a separate car crash and Debbie and he banded together. Only a month after Debbie’s accident the two of them did the traditional graduation walk, holding each other up, with Debbie barely able to shuffle across the stage.

The doctors also told Debbie she would never be able to have children as her torso and internal organs had been crushed. Debbie eventually had three kids.

But as fast as Debbie overcame the obstacles, new ones were thrown at her. Several years after the accident, Debbie came down with mysterious ailments. Tests revealed that she had gotten hepatitis C from the transfusions she was given after her accident and that her liver was critically damaged. She went through treatments, similar to chemotherapy, in which she lost her hair and was sick for months. She was given a terminal diagnosis and an estimated date of death. Miraculously, the date came and went, and is now many years behind her – a second brush with death. Debbie told me, “I think I must have God on my shoulder.”

I mentioned in the last article that Debbie seemed to have been saved from death in order to serve a greater purpose. That came about through yet another trial. Debbie knew that she was a candidate for glaucoma, as her mother had it. While the effects on her mom were mild, Debbie’s glaucoma was more profound; she was going blind. She turned in her driver’s license, bought a white cane and cried for three days. What she didn’t realize is that this latest obstacle was the start of a new and exciting life.

In 1995 Debbie was paired with her first seeing eye dog, a German shepherd named Cactus. Debbie quickly realized the freedom and companionship she was about to experience. Debbie described the feeling: “The pure joy of feeling independent and safe … it feels so free!” She wanted to tell the world.

Although Debbie had never given a presentation in her life, she began speaking at schools, churches and scouting functions about guide dogs. She got involved with the people who raise and train the puppies and did presentations with them. The Guide Dogs for the Blind organization sponsored a Rose Parade float in 2002 and Debbie and Cactus were selected to ride on it. Debbie had become a spokesperson for the world of guide dogs. She next became focused on training police departments on the issues surrounding service dogs, helping to set up the curriculum for officers in training.

This is Debbie’s life now, introducing the world to guide dogs. Debbie is now with her second guide dog, Sheena, and she continues to live with as much fervor, passion and intensity as anyone you would imagine who has cheated death twice. She serves as an inspiration to us all as an example of overcoming adversity and the power of positive thinking, which all started with a violent and deadly crash on La Tuna Canyon Road.

Next week, I’ll relate some of Debbie’s advice and wisdom about guide dogs.

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical
Society of the Crescenta Valley
and loves local history.
Reach him at