A Peach of a Patient
Former patient James Carnes helps weld an Atlanta landmark after rehabilitation for a spinal cord injury.
There’s a picture on James Carnes’ Handi-Capable Facebook page of a bright blue motorized cage called a rock crawler lying on its side on a Tennessee mountain, knobby tires spinning in the air. The caption, written by his incredulous wife Barbara, reads, “Laying there with a smile on his face!”
That was two years ago – four years after James sustained a C-6 to -7 complete spinal cord injury diving off a pier in Mexico.
“Yeah,” says James, 47. “I’ve always been a thrill seeker.”
He was sitting in his wheelchair under an awning last summer outside his welding shop in Dawsonville, Georgia. A few feet away was a huge, curved slab of stainless steel that was part of a 29-foot high, 4,000-pound sculpture he'd been welding. In two months, the sculpture, which was commissioned by the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, would be installed at the World Congress Center in Atlanta.
The sculpture and the rock crawler are proof that this former Shepherd Center patient and lifelong thrill seeker has refused to let setbacks render him a bystander in life. And he’s had plenty of opportunities.
A week after his injury was treated at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, James transferred to Shepherd Center.
“I never thought he’d do anything again,” Barbara says. “It was the scariest feeling, not knowing what to expect. But they not only helped him, they helped me. The classes for family members were constantly teaching me how to do things, what to look for.”
After two months at Shepherd Center, going home was a shock.
“He used to work until 10 at night, and now all of a sudden, he’s home and it was mentally hard for him," Barbara says. "He told me he could sit in front of the TV and die, or get out there and try to weld again. He said, ‘Welding is all I know.’”
He broke through his depression the day he fastened bolts and rope to the doors of their home, saving $3,000 in manufactured accessibility parts.
“You should have seen his face light up,” Barbara says.
But being in a wheelchair with limited use of his hands forced him to relearn his trade.
“If he was using two fingers to hold something, he had to concentrate on those two fingers,” Barbara says. “If he forgot, he would drop it.”
During the next few years, James endured additional health issues, including a fiery automobile accident and a heart condition that resulted in the need for a pacemaker. Welding equipment disrupts pacemakers, and James balked.
“That about killed me,” he says. “I was just back to where I could weld, and now it was about to be taken away from me.”
Finally, a pacemaker was found that did not interfere, and again, he went back to work.
Things began to look up when Gregory Johnson, a sculptor from nearby Cumming came to visit James. Gregory had occasionally brought bronze statues to James to repair over the years, but this visit was different. He was now creating modern pieces of varying shapes and sizes, and the only welder he trusted was James.
“Basically, I brought him bigger things and more problems, things with curves and twists," Gregory says. "He’s always done excellent work, and I think he’s gotten better since his injury. He always has an answer. He’s amazing. He’s got a sharp eye and a smart brain. He’s a great problem solver.”
The most recent challenge was a peach sculpture that began as 50 pieces of ordinary sheet metal. They had to be welded together seamlessly and polished to a mirror finish. Inside the curving sides are a dozen pieces of steel pipe of varying lengths that provide structural support. James welded those together, too. The finished product, called Modern Peach, was unveiled on Sept. 1 in the Georgia World Congress Center’s East Plaza.
“It's been a logistical nightmare,” Gregory says. “We had to get a crane in here to flip one side over. But the bigger the problem, the more James thinks on it. He is inspirational. I never hear him complain or angry. He’s always got a fix. Being in a wheelchair has got to be a challenge, and to be upbeat, happy and looking forward, he’s got a great spirit.”
In his spare time, James goes boating, jet skis with friends and still does rock crawling. He has modified everything at home from his lawn mower and trash cans to the grill on his deck. He fashioned pins that lock his chair into place in his van, put disc brakes on the chair and created a floating beach chair.
But there’s something else he’d like to fix.
“When I run across someone who has a disability,” he says, “I ask what they’re doing, and sometimes it’s pretty much nothing. I would love to help them learn how to live because a lot of people hold themselves back. There’s a lot more to life than sitting in front of a TV."
Written by John Christensen
Photos by Louie Favorite and Gregory Johnson
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 900 inpatients, 575 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year.