A True Reflection
When 18-year-old Kelsey Sasser was a freshman at Holy Innocents Episcopal School in Atlanta, her English teacher told the class “If you’re going to talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk.”
Kelsey quipped, “Are you trying to make fun of me?”
Her classmates laughed, but the teacher was horrified, thinking he’d offended her. He hadn’t.
“That’s just the way I roll,” she says. Kelsey has been rolling since she was six years old, when she sustained a complete T-3 spinal cord injury in an auto accident. Now a recent high school graduate, she is a poised young woman whose stunning photograph of a smudged, one- legged Barbie doll won a photography contest. She also hit the bull’s-eye three times the first time she shot a 9-millimeter pistol, programs the family’s electronic devices and — English teachers take note — was voted by her classmates “Most Likely to Make You Laugh.”
Kelsey describes herself: “I’m shy to a certain degree… a bit reserved until I know what’s going on. But once you get to know me, I might not be quiet ever.”
However, adjusting her self-image to accommodate her disability, as many teen-agers discover, was not easy.
Kelsey Sasser, 18, recently graduated from Holy Innocents Episcopal School in Atlanta. Years after sustaining a spinal cord injury, she is now self-confident and outgoing. Photo by Gary Meek
Her struggles began in the southwest Georgia town of Blakely, where the family lived when she was injured. Although Kelsey downplays those early years, her mother, Rhonda Sasser says: “She had a really hard time. She felt different, and her teacher didn’t understand why Kelsey would have to leave the room so much, why it took her so long in the bathroom and why she was sick so often.”
Her “new normal” and the lack of understanding she encountered stressed everyone in the family, and things didn’t improve when they moved to Dothan, Ala. “The teacher left her alone,” Rhonda says, “and the kids followed suit.”
But after moving to Atlanta in 2002, Kelsey met other young people like herself in Shepherd Center’s Outpatient Services Department and found she was usually accepted wherever she went in the city. “In school, it was no big deal,” Rhonda says. “I think the kids felt, ‘Oh, it’s just Kelsey.’ She becomes Kelsey, not the chair. It was easier for her and for us.” Nevertheless, Kelsey, her older sister, Lexa, and Rhonda herself participated in counseling to help them adjust to their new reality.
“Before the accident,” Rhonda says, “Kelsey was sassy and very self-confident and independent. For a while after, it was difficult for her. Her self-esteem was not very good. But now she’s sassy again. She thinks, ‘Yes, I can do it.’”
“Sometimes young people are embarrassed at having a disability,” says Kathy Mattox, a nurse in Outpatient Services, who has seen Kelsey in the clinic since 2005. “But we get them out in the community and teach them how to handle people who lack knowledge about people with disabilities. Kelsey grew up in that chair. Kelsey has a good self-image and is proud of her accomplishments. She is a well- rounded teenager and has a bright future.”
Cheryl Linden, a counselor who works with Shepherd’s adolescent inpatients with spinal cord injury, says young people with disabilities worry about how they appear to others, whether they’ll be able to do what others do and whether others will want to be around them. They worry about getting around, about complications from bowel and bladder programs, and, naturally, they wonder about dating.
One of the best predictors for a good self-image, Cheryl says, is strong support from family and friends. In fact, she says, “Some who are more independent physically have a harder time at home than those who are less independent, but are better emotionally because of that support.”
Another indicator is personality. Everyone has different coping skills, and someone who is highly motivated before their injury may also be motivated to recover from it.
“It’s not just about adjusting to a spinal cord injury,” Cheryl says. “It’s also about taking charge of your life again and how you put yourself out there and perceive yourself rather than how others see you. Others take their cues from you.”
But what teen-agers seek most is conformity.
“Image is everything,” Cheryl says. “They want to be like everyone else; they don’t want to be seen as different. They want to fit in, whether that means having long hair or wearing your pants hanging down.
They identify with the group.” She adds, “I can talk about those things, but I’m not a teen-ager and haven’t been for some time, and I don’t have a spinal cord injury.”
Thus, the need exists for peer supporters – teenagers and young adults who have overcome the physical, emotional and psychological challenges of spinal cord injury and are living independently.
Former patient Luke Easterwood, 22, of Rome, Ga., regained his self-confidence in time after his injury. He recently graduated from Georgia Southern University and will be entering graduate school at the University of Washington this fall. Photo by Jeremy Wilburn.
Take Luke Easterwood, 22, of Rome, Ga., for example. Luke sustained a complete T-5 to -6 spinal cord injury in a motorized scooter accident in November 2008. But he graduated from Georgia Southern University this spring in just three years while also working as an intern at a university magazine. He will attend graduate school at the University of Washington this fall.
Luke learned to care for himself so well that he bristles when someone holds the door for him. “I feel it’s almost like telling the other person I can’t do it for myself,” he says. “I don’t mind it if I’ve got a box in my lap or something, but I like being an activist and being empowered.”
But he admits that his injury did change his self-image.
“I can’t move around like I did,” he says. “And things like transferring from a bench to my chair are uncomfortable. But I also know it’s important not to worry, to be myself and not attached to the chair.” A book he read convinced him that it’s not enough to go only places that are accessible, “or you’re making yourself inaccessible. You’re putting yourself in a box if you don’t try to go,” he says.
So he has gone to concerts and soccer games, and wears neon-green laces in his tennis shoes “to make people look at the laces instead of the chair.”
Former patient Schuyler Jenkins, 20, of Ellenwood, Ga., right, returns to Shepherd Center to provide peer support to patients, including Brady Conaster, 19, of Cunningham, Tenn., left. He keeps in touch with his former therapists, including Cheryl Linden and Cathi Dugger. Photo by Leita Cowart
Schuyler Jenkins, 20, a peer supporter from Ellenwood, Ga., sustained an incomplete C-4 to -5 spinal cord injury in an auto accident in November 2010. Although he is walking again, he still uses a wheelchair at times and says: “I’m pretty insecure. I was in tiptop shape for 19 years and could bench press 500 pounds. Now, I can barely lift 100, and I’m not able to do as much as I used to. But even though I’m battling, it’s still worth it to share something that would mean something to someone else.”
Throughout his ordeal, Schuyler says, his friends were steadfast. “It’s like I’ve got eight mommies,” he says.
Kelsey says her friends don’t see her as being in a wheelchair and “haven’t changed at all,” and that she has an active social life.
And, yes, she says, she fits in. “Yeah, I stand out,” she says, “but not in a bad way.
I’m the only one sitting down. But I’m pretty confident. Everyone has insecurities, but I have pretty high self-esteem. And if someone sees only my disability or has a prejudice against me, they haven’t spent enough time with me. They’d see otherwise.”
Atlanta School Forms a Special Bond with Shepherd Center
When Rhonda Sasser looked for a high school for daughter Kelsey, she called several private schools in the Atlanta area and asked if they would admit a child in a wheelchair. Most of them said no. But Holy Innocents Episcopal School not only enrolled her, it also renovated bathrooms to make them accessible and installed push plates at the doors.
“That was a big deal,” Rhonda says. “They didn’t have to do that.”
Holy Innocents makes it a habit to accommodate students and faculty with disabilities and make them feel welcome.
In one case a few years ago, a third-grader was temporarily restricted to a wheelchair and unable to get to classrooms on the second floor. The third-grade classes were moved to first-floor classrooms until the student was able to walk again.
In another ongoing case, a lower school chaplain has a disability, so students are brought to her for class.
Holy Innocents students also volunteer regularly at Shepherd Center, doing such things as making courage cards, putting up holiday decorations, decorating trays and painting ceiling tiles. Some of their parents also volunteer at Shepherd.
“Community service is something we value and try to instill,” says Associate Headmaster Rick Betts, “and we maintain a relationship with Shepherd Center, where the students can go and serve and build relationships. Our community gets a lot out of it, and I know Shepherd Center appreciates what we do.”
“Our association with Holy Innocents is special,” says Dean Melcher, the Shepherd Center Foundation’s director of annual giving. “We’ve had a very long and deep relationship.”
Aside from volunteer activities and individual donations, Betts estimates that fundraisers such as read-a-thons and fun runs have contributed an additional $30,000 to Shepherd Center in the 14 years he’s worked at the school.
Janet Silvera, who teaches middle school science at Holy Innocents, was a patient in Shepherd Center’s Acquired Brain Injury Unit following a stroke in early 2010. At her request, the Holy Innocents Parents’ Association donated more than $14,000 from its 2011 Fun Run to Shepherd Pathways, the hospital’s post-acute brain injury rehabilitation program.
“Holy Innocents has a very strong family relationship among faculty, parents and students,” Janet says. “And a number of our students and parents have been patients at Shepherd Center. I really wanted to do something to give back because when I walk into that hospital, I get an overwhelming feeling of comfort and appreciation for the ongoing support that Shepherd provides for patients and their family. I am blessed to be able to teach again.”
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 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.