12/24/2007 at 01:00 AM EST
In many ways Dustin Nguyen considers himself a lucky man. Forced to flee Vietnam as a child, he came to America and grew up into a heartthrob Hollywood actor, starring with Johnny Depp
in the late-'80s hit 21 Jump Street
. More roles followed, in film as well as television. And then in 1998 Nguyen met the love of his life: a model and artist named Angela Rockwood. "Apart from her beauty there was something about her soul," he says. "It felt like we'd always been together."
Within three years they eloped. Angela still wanted a big wedding, though, and on Labor Day weekend in 2001, she drove to San Francisco with two friends to shop for bridesmaid dresses. Returning on a winding stretch of I-5 outside L.A., "I was in back," says Angela, 32. "They said something juicy, so I unfastened my seat belt and leaned forward." At that moment their car spun out of control and crashed into the mountainside, killing one of her friends, actress Thuy Trang. Catapulted 20 feet out a side window, Angela suffered a broken neck and severed spinal cord, leaving her paralyzed below the shoulders.
For Dustin and Angela, it was the beginning of a different kind of love story. All but abandoning his career, Dustin devoted himself to Angela's care, bathing her, feeding her, tending to all her needs. The first time Angela cried was six months after the accident as Dustin inserted her catheter. "It hit me what our life was about," she says. "I said, 'You don't have to live this life. You can just go.'"
Six years later, he's still there. "The idea of leaving is ridiculous," says Dustin, 45. "I'm not trying to be saintly or noble. But there is only one thing to do: take care of the wife I love. Things happen. You react and move on."
Sitting in their cozy, wheelchair-friendly 1920s-era house in L.A., the couple laugh easily and trade affectionate gazes. Angela has regained limited use of her arms and hands; while she can't control her fingers, she can feed herself, sketch and "even do my own makeup." Dustin recently started acting again, and the two often host paella or Italian dinner parties. "What I love is their sense of humor," says Justin Lin, who directed Nguyen in the recent martial arts spoof Finishing the Game
. "Angela's is wicked—right down to the dirty sailor jokes."
The soft-spoken Nguyen is more reserved than his wife—a trait he acquired early on. He was 12 when Saigon fell, and his family escaped by boat to Guam before settling in St. Louis. "My dad went from being one of the top movie stars in Vietnam," he says, "to washing dishes." Mocked for his fractured English, Dustin took solace in martial arts—and gradually his language skills improved. With plans to attend UCLA film school, he got a gig on General Hospital
and landed the role of Officer Harry Ioki on Jump Street
, a FOX series about youthful cops. "At one cast appearance," he marvels, "12,000 kids came. Girls were screaming. But we were smart enough to know it could go away."
After Jump Street's
1991 finale, Dustin kept working in TV and film and got cast in Pamela Anderson
's campy 1998-2002 series V.I.P. After a brief marriage, Nguyen was a contented bachelor—that is, until the day in 1998 when he went to a Crunch gym in L.A. and started pounding the heavy bag. "He was two bags down from me," recalls Angela, the daughter of a Thai mother and an American father, who had worked as a model and restaurant manager. "We hung out as friends and I noticed a weird electricity. Before long we were all over each other."
On Valentine's Day, 2001, "Dustin woke up and said, 'Let's get married today,'" Angela recalls. They found a minister "and didn't even tell our parents." Announcing themselves merely engaged, they set Nov. 11 as an "official" wedding date. Then in the early hours of Sept. 4, 2001, Dustin got a phone message that Angela had been in a car accident and made the three-hour drive to the hospital in San Luis Obispo. Angela learned her diagnosis when "the doctors came in with a needle and poked at my whole body. Finally they announced: 'You're paralyzed,'" she says. "I had to make a quick decision whether to go down a negative or a positive path. The negative wasn't going to take me anywhere."
She spent nine days in the hospital and three months in live-in rehab before heading home to Dustin's care. Doctors told Angela she had, at best, a 5 percent chance to regain movement in her arms. "Two months after the accident, my girlfriend was wiping off my fingernail polish and I started freaking out, 'I can feel my finger!' A month later I could touch the top of my head." In 2003 Angela underwent stem cell treatment in Portugal that boosted her strength and circulation. "I'd been in a motorized chair and gained 40 lbs. The surgery made me strong enough for a manual chair—and with exercise I lost it all."
With the strides have come many stresses. Medical bills sapped the couple's savings. Dustin started a jewelry line, Imperial Rose Collections, providing some income, and after a year insurance covered 24-hour weekday nursing care. At first he was nervous leaving his wife with someone else—"You never feel they'll do as good a job." Even when the nurse is on duty, Dustin helps in many ways. "I sleep in increments of three or four hours," he says. "She needs to be turned so she doesn't get bedsores."
The couple have talked about raising a family. "Physically, I can have kids," says Angela. "But we'd have to have some help, and we can't afford that." Dustin broaches the topic gingerly, rubbing his temples: "I love kids. But there's a certain practicality." Still, their lives are full. Dustin now works steadily in independent films, and both are active with the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. Angela has given three motivational speeches, traveling as far away as Chicago. "And of course, she's constantly running around, meeting friends for lunch," adds her husband, reaching out to hold her hand. "I can't keep up with her. Nothing stops this girl."