After surviving a brutal attack, Deborah Moy L’16 refuses to let the experience define her and has focused on advocating for others.
By Eric Townsend
Following a quick burst of applause when her name was called over the loudspeaker, the only sound to be heard in Alumni Gym as Deborah Moy crossed the stage at Elon Law’s Commencement in May were the muffled “thumps” of her crutches.
Moy didn’t want unique accommodations at the ceremony. She had already processed into the gym with members of her class using crutches and prosthetic legs. At this point, she certainly didn’t want Elon University President Leo M. Lambert to move from where he stood to hand her a diploma, though the option had been offered.
No. Moy was determined to cross the stage on her own, without help, the latest steps in a saga that started when she was the victim of a brutal attack eight years ago. When she awoke from a coma following that attack, she was in the intensive care unit of a regional hospital, with her legs amputated and burns covering more than 70 percent of her body. As the sole survivor, she considers herself to be the “lucky” one. A friend who was also attacked didn’t survive.
Since then, following many months recovering in the ICU, more than 100 surgical procedures and skin grafts, and years of physical therapy, Moy has regained the ability to walk with help from prosthetic legs, and she now is determined to serve as an advocate for other victims of crime, abuse, negligence and harm, including veterans. “I had to decide whether I was going to let my situation define who I was, or whether I would let it direct where I should go,” she says. “I knew that if I took the ‘poor me’ approach, it would end up destroying me. Besides, I refuse to allow someone else to determine who I am.”
Moy had moved around the country as a child before settling in Greensboro, N.C., once her father retired from the Air Force. She attended Grimsley High School and majored in English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Following graduation, Moy worked in the service industry, saving money to travel across the country by train twice, hike the Grand Canyon and backpack throughout Europe.
Then, in predawn hours of Sept. 13, 2008, her life changed forever following a night with friends when she was beaten, doused in an accelerant and left for dead in her burning Greensboro apartment. What makes Moy’s story even more compelling to those who know her is the way she didn’t let the criminal justice system break her spirit. In 2012 the police arrested the man who they believed attacked her. He was indicted by a grand jury, spent one year in jail awaiting trial, but was ultimately released. From what Moy has gathered, there may have been problems with the collection and preservation of evidence at the crime scene, which first responders treated at first as a fire to extinguish.
Nevertheless, Moy has opted not to focus on this, preferring instead to focus on her goal of becoming an attorney. “I witnessed, firsthand, how the justice system can disappoint someone,” she says. “I decided to use that to figure out how to help others who find themselves in such situations.”
She credits her upbringing in a military family and her service experience for pointing her toward law school. As she lay in bed at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, she saw how she’d become “stuck” feeling sorry for herself, but realized that the tragedy maybe, just maybe, could have a silver lining. Law school was always in the back of her mind, so she decided to apply to Elon Law, where she began taking classes in 2013.
Moy’s attitude and approach to her legal education has caught the attention of faculty and classmates. Betsy Lamb L’16 befriended Moy shortly after they arrived together at Elon Law in the summer of 2013 and has often witnessed Moy’s humor diffusing awkward conversations. Moy also reminds Lamb that life, as well as the law, isn’t always fair, but that how someone responds to their circumstances reflects character. “She’s been an inspiration to me,” Lamb says. “She never complains. Never. If she can do this, I need to stop complaining about my own problems. To have gone through what she has gone through and be where she is, it’s nothing short of amazing.”
Her professors agree. “All tragedies have ironies,” says Catherine Ross Dunham, who taught Moy in three classes, including trial practice. “In hers, she’s probably going to end up more successful in life for having gone through this.” Assistant Professor Antonette Barilla, director of academic support and bar preparation at Elon Law, says Moy exemplifies the famous saying: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
“After one of our first in-class written assignments, Deborah asked if she could come and chat with me about what she perceived to be a less-than-quality submission, but was actually a very impressive work product,” Barilla says. “She dissected the assignment in my office, carefully scrutinizing every nuance of the applicable rules, every variant in the analysis, and every detail related to the answer’s form and structure. It was that kind of consistent and genuine interest in her learning that quickly propelled her to the top of the class.”
Moy spent the summer preparing for the bar exam and hopes to practice disability law with a focus on veterans. North Carolina is a military-friendly state with Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune and Seymour Johnson among the most prominent installations for tens of thousands of active duty military personnel. That also means there’s a sizable veteran presence in the state.
Moy’s interest in veterans was born of her personal experience. Her hospital recovery proved that some health care providers and hospital volunteers understand the emotional and physical needs of burn victims. Others understand the emotional and physical needs of amputees. But there are very few people who understand what it’s like to survive both types of injuries—the exception, of course, being service members who live through horrific attacks while serving overseas on the front lines. The law is there for those men and women, too, who need help claiming benefits due to them from their service.
Moy already has interned for the legal departments of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Winston-Salem and the Wounded Warrior Project in Jacksonville, Fla. She is now ready for her future courtroom battles.
“The law isn’t constrictive. It was not put into place just to punish wrongdoers, but to protect us. It’s our security blanket,” Moy says. “Being an attorney, first and foremost, is entering into the service industry, and I know that my experience will allow me to be an effective advocate.”