A Change of Plans: Abbey Climer, Former Shepherd Center Patient, Shares Her Story
Abbey Climer thought she knew what she wanted her career to be until she sustained a traumatic brain injury that changed her perspective.
Abbey Climer, 23, always knew she wanted to enter the medical field. So when she started college at the University of Mississippi in the fall of 2016, it was easy to choose the pre-med route.
“My freshman year was not fun studying all the time, but I remember telling everyone I’d be a doctor one day!” Abbey says.
After her freshman year, Abbey, who was 19 at the time, and her twin sister Alden worked at a summer camp in Alabama. On August 3, 2017, camp ended, and the sisters started the five-hour drive back home to Senatobia, Mississippi.
“We took turns driving,” Abbey explains. “Alden drove first, and then I switched with her halfway to drive the rest of the way home. Right outside of Tupelo, Mississippi, we were in a bad car accident. A car weaved in and out of the median, and when it was my turn to pass, they swerved into my lane. I swerved to miss them, and that’s when our car flipped.”
Abbey doesn’t remember what happened next, but she was told that because their car was top-heavy with luggage from working out-of-state all summer, it flipped nine times and caught on fire.
“They were able to get Alden out with just bruises and scratches,” Abbey recalls. “I was driving, so they had more trouble getting me out of the car. They said my legs were stuck with how the car was warped.”
First responders eventually managed to open the door, and Abbey was airlifted to North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, where she stayed for three weeks. In addition to sustaining a traumatic brain injury and being in a coma her first week at the hospital, Abbey also had broken bones in her hands and sustained severe scalp and facial lacerations.
“They had to shave my head to perform surgery and stitch the wounds,” Abbey explains. “Besides the brain injury, that was probably the hardest factor. I was having an identity crisis because I didn’t look like myself anymore.”
The crash may have left physical scars, but the emotional scars were there, too, as Abbey embarked on her rehabilitation journey.
A New Perspective
Abbey’s parents researched rehabilitation hospitals, and after looking into options and getting recommendations from friends, they decided on Shepherd Center. Luckily, a bed in the Brain Injury Rehabilitation Program had just become available, and the family arrived at the hospital on August 23, 2017.
“I was conscious when I got to Shepherd, but I was still in a weird phase where I wasn’t motivated,” Abbey says. “A few days after I admitted, it’s like a light switch went off in my head: ‘I’ve got to get better. I’ve got to go back to college. I’m supposed to be in school.’”
With renewed determination, she was ready to tackle the challenges ahead of her.
“Cognitively, I had to relearn how to do everything,” Abbey says. “My writing looked like a 5-year-old. I could remember things, but I wasn’t sure what was going on. My vision wasn’t 100% like before either. I knew it was just off.”
Halfway through her stay at Shepherd, Abbey remembers feeling overwhelmed and reflecting on everything that had happened since her accident. One of the things that stood out to her was the care she received from her nurses.
“I thought about how my nurses cared for me and helped me with everything,” she says. “I wasn’t able to walk by myself or do other things like I used to, but they did those things for me with servant hearts and didn’t complain. I felt like they really cared for me and wanted to know me on a personal level. That’s when my perspective shifted on what I wanted to do when I went back to school. I wanted to be there for someone in that same way because I knew how great that connection made me feel. I wanted to be a nurse.”
Back to School
On September 11, 2017, Abbey was discharged from Shepherd Center and continued outpatient therapy closer to home for the next several months. By the end of the year, she was cleared to return to school the next semester and pursue her new goal of becoming a nurse.
“I basically healed in five or six months,” Abbey says. “I was in a stretcher when I got to Shepherd, and I was able to walk out with a gait belt. Since then, I’ve gotten back to what I was doing before my accident. I know all brain injuries are different, and I’m very blessed. I get chills every time I think about it.”
Abbey stayed connected with Shepherd Center throughout college. During her junior year, she reached out to Lauren Bott, BSN, RN, CRRN, rehabilitation nurse educator at Shepherd Center, to see if she could shadow her during spring break. The experience made a big impact on the former patient.
“I got to go back to Shepherd on the same floor I was a patient on,” Abbey says. “My perspective really changed. I got to see what nurses do, and it was remarkable to be on the other side of healthcare with them."
Abbey graduated from college in May 2020. Not one to waste any time, she started nursing school at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi, just two weeks later.
“I’m in a traditional two-year nursing program,” Abbey says. “During your second summer, you have the option to enroll in a class that’s an externship. This past spring, I applied and was accepted to a student nurse externship at Children’s of Mississippi Hospital. I really enjoyed it. I knew I was interested in pediatrics, but with my brain injury, I’ve become interested in neurology. I may do pediatric neurology in the future, but I’m still figuring it all out!”
Abbey may still be figuring out exactly what she wants to do, but what is clear is her sense of gratitude and purpose since the car crash.
“No one would be thankful for an accident like mine, but this experience has made me more grateful for being alive and for the people that I’ve gotten to meet through this,” Abbey says. “I’m so thankful to have had them because they got me to where I am today in nursing school -- the doctors, nurses, therapists and everybody else involved in this journey with me. It's just really amazing to see how far I've come."
Written by Damjana Alverson
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 743 inpatients, 277 day program patients and more than 7,161 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.