The night before Valentine's Day 2016, Anna Claire Stokes and her fiancé, Jimbo Waldrop, left a friend's birthday party outside Cleveland, Miss. The couple, seniors at Delta State University, had gotten engaged the previous month. That night, they were driving back to campus when a drunk driver crashed into their car.
Jimbo shot through the sunroof, which had popped open on impact. He landed along the side of the road, sustaining only minor injuries. Anna Claire remained inside the vehicle as it flipped at least three times. She was airlifted to a hospital in Memphis, Tenn., with a severe C-4 to -6 spinal cord injury.
Following a pair of surgeries, Anna Claire entered Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program in March 2016.
"I remember wanting to cry all the time at first," she says. "I was mourning my old body, who I was. But I knew I had to accept my new body, my new situation, in order to get better."
She also had some added motivation: She was getting married on Oct. 22, 2016.
Jen Roane, OT, Cristina Segredo Thurston, PT, DPT, NCS, and Katie Murphy, CTRS, were among the staff members who met with Anna Claire shortly after she arrived at Shepherd Center. They told her it was OK to consider pushing her wedding date back.
"She said, 'No, this is still going to happen,'" Cristina recalls. "She never wavered. She just took a positive attitude and put it to work. She didn’t let her low days define her. Even on her toughest days, when new patients came in, she was always the first to welcome them and offer encouragement."
Anna Claire is quick to point out she had plenty of support from her new friends. Her therapy team worked with her daily to improve her strength, dexterity and stamina. During Anna Claire's two-and-a-half-month stay, Jen, Cristina and Katie also saw to it that the bride-to-be not only prepared for her wedding, but made happy memories doing it.
There was a laughter-filled bachelorette party that brought patients from all over Shepherd Center to join in the celebration. There were outings to shop for dresses – a wedding dress, bridesmaid dresses, a dress to wear for engagement photos. And the engagement photos themselves? They were taken in Shepherd Center's picturesque Secret Garden. Cristina helped Anna Claire get dressed. Other staff members helped with hair, makeup, poses and more. Therapy manager Teresa Foy served as the photographer.
"Everyone pitched in," Jen says. "It truly was so much fun. And that was important. Putting in all the work she was doing every day to get better and then planning a wedding on the side? The stress could have been overwhelming. I certainly couldn't imagine doing all that."
Jen and Cristina could empathize better than most. Jen was in the midst of planning her own spring wedding, and Cristina had just gotten married a year prior. Jen brought in her wedding books and magazines to review with Anna Claire. And during intense balance and transfer exercises on the physical therapy mats, Cristina would tell Anna Claire: "Five more reps and then we'll look at your Pinterest board," which was, of course, filled with wedding inspiration.
"It was like having older sisters who knew better than anyone what I was going through, on all levels," Anna Claire says.
The wedding planning had other benefits. The bachelorette party, which Katie spearheaded, included jewelry-making, music and games. While it was a huge boon to Anna Claire, Katie notes it was just as uplifting and constructive for the other patients who attended.
And for Anna Claire, the dress-shopping outings offered a chance to practice what she learned at Shepherd Center – wheelchair transfers, navigating public spaces and, of course, trying on lots of dresses. All were opportunities to put her training to use in the real world.
"I was nervous about those outings," Anna Claire says. "But everyone was so upbeat. Jimbo and my mom were there, of course, but the ladies from Shepherd Center felt like family, too. They made it fun. They were pulling out dresses for me to try on and acting like they were trying them on, too. They literally picked me up to get in and out of dresses."
The outings gave her confidence. They also provided her with the dress she wore on her wedding day – which, yes, did take place on Oct. 22, 2016.
Coming Full Circle
Mr. and Mrs. Waldrop got married in an outdoor ceremony at First United Methodist Church, in New Albany, Miss. As the two school sweethearts prepared to exchange rings, out of habit, Jimbo reached over and turned off Anna Claire’s power wheelchair – prompting the loud, electronic noise the wheelchair makes when it powers down. In the audience a pair of laughs rose above the rest. Anna Claire recognized them right away: The giggles came from Jen and Katie.
“We weren’t going to miss that wedding,” Katie says. “It was special to be part of the big day after being part of so much leading up to it. We got to see everything come full circle.”
"It was so sweet of them to come," Anna Claire says. “They represented all the people at Shepherd Center who mean so much to me now. I can't believe they made that drive, but I’m thankful they did.”
“You know, as we were driving, we were actually thinking about how often Jimbo made that trip, back and forth, as he was finishing school,” Jen says. “He never complained. He was always upbeat, always asking what else he could do. We fell in love with them both.”
They’re not the only ones who have felt the impact of Anna Claire’s and Jimbo’s love and positivity. Claire Cherry, MOTR/L, was Anna Claire's occupational therapist in the Shepherd Center Spinal Cord Injury Day Program. She accompanied Anna Claire on an outing to get her wedding dress fitted, and the two quickly bonded. When Claire became pregnant, Anna Claire was one of the first people she told the good news. This past December, Anna Claire woke to a text message one morning. It was Claire, saying that the baby had arrived – and that the baby's name was Anna Claire.
"That was incredible,” Anna Claire says. “It’s just another example of the millions of ways people have been so wonderful. Looking back, I don't know what I would have done without everyone I had around me at Shepherd Center. They became family. They made it possible for me to be optimistic about the future."
Today, Anna Claire and Jimbo live in an accessible home of their own in Horn Lake, Miss. The couple is turning one room into a home gym, where Anna Claire can continue the exercises she learned at Shepherd Center. Jimbo is teaching seventh and eighth grade science, and coaching football. Anna Claire, who started back to classes while in the Day Program at Shepherd Center, finished her bachelor’s degree in speech pathology this past December. She may pursue a master’s degree in special education at the University of Memphis.
Now, a year after their car crash, Anna Claire and Jimbo are more thankful than ever to be celebrating Valentine’s Day together.
“As time goes on, Jimbo and I have realized that God has been there for us every step of the way,” Anna Claire says. “Since the accident, everything has been blessing upon blessing. We still don't understand everything, but we've been pushed to dig deeper both in our love and in our faith. It's made us stronger than ever before."
Written by Phillip Jordan
Photos by Lexie Merlino Photography
Video by Sami Sue Studios
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Ga., is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury or brain injury. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation and is a 152-bed facility. Last year Shepherd Center had 965 admissions to its inpatient programs and 571 to its day patient programs. In addition, Shepherd Center sees more than 6,600 people annually on an outpatient basis. For more information, visit Shepherd Center online at www.shepherd.org