A Special Life
After sustaining a spinal cord injury, Frances Hardy lives with focus, a positive attitude and support from friends and family.
I think that we have to appreciate the people around us and make them part of this difficult moment in our lives. Many people want to help but don’t know how, so it is up to us to ask for help when we need it.
During her time at Shepherd Center in January 2020, Frances Hardy, 25, pushed her wheelchair down Shepherd Center's halls, giving warm friendly smiles and hellos to anyone she passed. Exuding positivity and a zest for life, her energy is vibrant, and the warm greetings were returned each time. She is friends with both patients and staff, stopping to chat about rehabilitation with one staff member and planning her first attempt at wheelchair rugby with a fellow patient.
Today, Frances Hardy is a confident, young woman with endless possibilities ahead of her. But seven years ago, she faced a challenge that tested her resolve.
“FOCUS ON WHAT I COULD CONTROL”
Frances grew up in the scenic, coastal city of Viña del Mar, Chile. In 2013, she had completed secondary school (the equivalent of high school in the United States) and was excited to take on the next phase of her life. She was scheduled to begin college at Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez in March.
But everything changed one evening in February 2013. Frances was in a car with four of her friends when another car crashed into the vehicle. She sustained a complete C-5 spinal cord injury (SCI) and was flown by helicopter from Viña del Mar to a hospital in Santiago.
“After my surgery, I had to stay at the hospital for two months,” Frances recalls. “I knew what had happened to me and that I would not walk again, but I was determined to focus on what I could control about the situation. I decided to train to do the things people didn’t think were possible like eating alone, using a manual wheelchair and eventually going back to university.”
Frances was discharged from the hospital and returned home to Viña del Mar in April 2013.
“I was really lucky to find a great rehabilitation center in my hometown, the Luis Krebs Institute,” Frances says. “For the rest of that year, I focused a lot on physical therapy and spent six hours each day doing exercises.”
While Frances was happy with the rehabilitation she was receiving, she was curious whether she was doing all she could to improve.
“I started asking around to specialists and other patients,” Frances says. “Shepherd Center was recommended to me because of the therapy and the great environment. Many places can be great for physical rehabilitation, but having a welcoming environment on top of that positively affects your state of mind.”
Frances’ first visit to Shepherd Center was in January 2015. She returned in 2016, and again in early 2020. During each visit, she spent three to four weeks in intensive rehabilitation in the Spinal Cord Injury Day Program. She affectionately describes her therapy at Shepherd Center as challenging.
“It is challenging,” Frances says. “I was impressed with the technology and the intensity of the training. The four weeks I spend at Shepherd Center prepare me to go back to my country and practice what I learned to regain my independence.”
As Frances’ skills advanced during each visit, her goals also evolved.
“In the beginning, I came to Shepherd to learn new skills,” Frances explains, “but now I’m perfecting those skills and focusing more on practical things that you do every day like transfers from a wheelchair to a bed and cooking. The Day Program team has been so innovative in trying new exercises. They know I love the challenge.”
In particular, Frances loves working with Kelly White, an exercise physiologist in the SCI Day Program.
“Kelly has so much energy and passion,” Frances says. “She creates innovative exercises in every session we have, no matter if it’s spinning class, dancing or anything else.”
LEANING ON FAMILY AND FRIENDS
To get through her intensive rehabilitation, Frances relies on family and friends for support.
“I think that we have to appreciate the people around us and make them part of this difficult moment in our lives,” Frances says. “Many people want to help but don’t know how, so it is up to us to ask for help when we need it.”
When Frances needed help at Shepherd Center, she reached out to Minna Hong, who retired in 2018 from her position as SCI peer support manager at Shepherd Center.
“The Peer Support Program helped me a lot,” Frances says. “Minna showed me that I could still have a normal life, get married, have kids and work at a great place.”
Frances also formed lifelong friendships with fellow patients at Shepherd Center. During her stays, they motivated her to try sports like handcycling, swimming and rugby. More importantly, they reminded her to have a good time and laugh.
“I love the friendships I have with other patients at Shepherd Center,” Frances says. “Many patients are going through a difficult time, but together we can have fun and help each other. I can ask them about their experiences, and I can help by telling them about mine.”
“A SPECIAL LIFE”
Frances has achieved her goals and continues to strive for new ones. She completed her degree in business specializing in marketing in 2019 and moved to Santiago, Chile, to begin her career in marketing at a telecommunications company. Frances also accomplished something many thought was impossible -- learning to drive.
“I look forward to regaining as much independence as possible,” Frances says. “It took me five years, but now I can drive alone and go wherever I want freely. I always say that maybe my wheelchair is my legs, but my car is my wings.”
Drawing on the courage and strength she has gained from everything she has been through, Frances wants to encourage others who are going through similar challenges.
“Learning to live a new way is a process,” Frances says. “We have to be brave and realize that this may be a different life from what we originally planned, but it is a special life.”
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 740 inpatients, nearly 280 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.