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Cottrell co-workers, first responders rally around hospitalized Gainesville woman with drive-by birthday
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Veronica Velazquez, left, is greeted outside Northeast Georgia Medical Center by coworkers who organized a birthday parade for her. Velazquez has been recovering from a spinal cord injury she sustained in a wreck on March 2, 2021. In this photo, Aggie Smith, right, Alan Ramos, center left, and Smith's two daughters present Velazquez with a sign and balloons for her 23rd birthday on March 16, 2021. - photo by Thomas Hartwell

When Aggie Smith asked Veronica Velazquez, her employee and self-proclaimed “adopted child,” what she wanted for her birthday, the answer was simple: To see everyone from work.

Velazquez, who suffered a spinal cord injury in a serious car wreck early on March 2 that left her without the ability to walk, had been recovering at Northeast Georgia Medical Center since the accident.

 Smith, wellness director at Cottrell Trailers in Gainesville, said after hearing Velazquez’s wish just a day before her March 16 birthday, she got to work right away to bring work friends to visit in style. 

Smith reached out to Velazquez’s friends, fellow employees and the city of Gainesville, successfully recruiting a caravan of decorated minivans, trucks and even police cars and fire engines to give Velazquez a drive-by 23rd birthday to remember. And, Smith added, one she deserves.

“Everybody loves her,” Smith said of her medical screening team lead. “She has that personality that everyone loves.”

Velazquez smiled under her mask as she sat just outside the covered entrance to the hospital’s north tower in her wheelchair, waving as a parade of coworkers and friends, and occasionally a scruffy dog, displayed their signs and waved out their windows.

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Veronica Velazquez is greeted outside Northeast Georgia Medical Center on March 16, 2021, by a parade of coworkers and local law enforcement for her birthday. Velazquez has been recovering from a spinal cord injury she sustained in a wreck on March 2, 2021. - photo by Thomas Hartwell

 Gainesville police officers and Hall sheriff’s deputies led the pack, some wishing Velazquez a happy birthday through their vehicle’s intercom.

For her part, Velazquez said she never expected a simple wish to see a few friends would turn into a full-blown parade.

“For them to put it all together in just one day just showed me a whole lot about how much I’m appreciated and how much I’ve impacted everyone’s lives,” said the 23-year-old. “I’ve never seen so much love and support from a community, especially from a working environment. … It’s something I’ll never forget.”

Velazquez also credited her employer with making her rehabilitation possible, saying the assistance and insurance they provided ensured she’d get the care she needed.

Proving the determined demeanor her coworkers said she constantly displayed, the Johnson High School graduate and former cross country runner with dreams of becoming a professional wrestler said she had “no doubts” that she’d make a full recovery, and one day, be in the ring.

“I just started setting my mindset toward making that full recovery and being able to walk again,” Velazquez said, adding that she’s already surprised doctors with her ability to wiggle her toes and feet. “I’m not going to let anything or anyone hold me back. I’m still chasing the career of being a professional wrestler.”

She noted, with a chuckle, that she shares an alma mater with fellow Johnson grad and WWE wrestler AJ Styles.

Velazquez is scheduled to be transferred to Shepherd Center in Atlanta on Wednesday morning, March 17, for rehabilitation. 

Just like her employee, Smith said she has no doubt Velazquez will soon overcome her injuries, return to work and more.

“We want her to get up, and get out of that wheelchair and become a WWE … superstar,” Smith said, smiling.