After Rehabilitation for a Brain Injury, Man Shows New Feats of Strength
Gilbert Ibarra of Gainesville, Georgia, learns it takes a different kind of strength to persevere following a traumatic brain injury.
As a busy Piedmont College student and lacrosse player who also worked two jobs, Gilbert Ibarra, 24, wasn’t accustomed to sitting still. But for the past 18 months, Gilbert, of Gainesville, Georgia, has had to learn patience, especially during the most intense months of his physical and cognitive rehabilitation for a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Gilbert sustained the TBI in an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) accident at a friend’s farm in Georgia on October 16, 2016. He wasn’t wearing a helmet at the time, and he also sustained a spinal cord injury that caused paralysis on his right side, broken hands and a crushed trachea, among other injuries. A friend performed CPR to revive Gilbert, then performed an emergency tracheostomy to open his windpipe. Shortly after Gilbert reached Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta by helicopter, he had to be revived again.
Soon, Gilbert was transferred to Shepherd Center’s Disorders of Consciousness Program. Founded in 2000, Shepherd Center’s Disorders of Consciousness Program is one of only a few dedicated programs nationwide providing specialized services for people in low-level states of consciousness caused by brain injury. Here, Gilbert quickly progressed from a minimally conscious state.
“They had to tell me every time I woke up, every morning, what had happened,” Gilbert says. “I forgot it every day. The first thing that went through my mind each morning was, ‘What am I being punished for?’”
Within a few months, his movement returned. Led by a Shepherd Center physical medicine and rehabilitation physician, a team of specialized physical, occupational, speech and recreational therapists helped him relearn how to walk, eat and speak – stimulating his brain all the while. The first thing Gilbert can vividly remember now from his time at Shepherd Center is watching the movie Polar Express before Christmastime.
Gilbert says he’s thankful that his family and friends stayed by his side during that time, including his parents, Candido and Ana, who both work night shifts at their jobs. His godmother, Concepcion, remained a constant presence, too, as did Gilbert’s younger brother, Oliver.
By January 1, 2017, months ahead of schedule, Gilbert was able to return home. That, however, was when his patience was truly put to the test.
As an athlete, it was frustrating to Gilbert that he could not work out on a daily basis as he had before the accident. He couldn’t run, much less play lacrosse. He couldn’t drive. Working his old job as a waiter was out of the question, too, because of the injuries to his hands and impact on his short-term memory. Depression settled in.
“My body was just this big frustration to me,” Gilbert says. “Being active and working out was a big thing for me before my injury, and I couldn’t do that for a long time. I hated not being able to do things for myself. And I hated having people feel sorry for me or to use my injury as an excuse for anything I couldn’t do.”
To fully heal, Gilbert knew he needed to focus on new feats of strength. He started opening up to people and shared his story on Facebook. Of course, he still worked out as much as he could, even doing modified pushups on his fists as soon as he realized his hands and wrists could take it. And he gave himself a new mantra, too. One year to the day of his injury, Gilbert got a new tattoo on his chest, which reads: “God can restore what’s broken and change it to something amazing. All you need is faith.”
Today, Gilbert says he still doesn’t quite feel in sync with his post-injury body, but he’s proud of the progress he’s made. And his mind is more at peace. Gilbert’s also back working evenings as a waiter at the Chattahoochee Country Club in Gainesville.
“I like being back at work,” he says. “More than anything, it feels good to feel needed.”
It’s not the only place where Gilbert’s needed. He may not be playing lacrosse just yet for his college team, but he’s now serving as an assistant coach for Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville.
“I love it,” Gilbert says. “It feels great to be back in the game. I love being around the physicality of it.”
The next items on his to-do list are relearning how to drive and retraining his body to run. Gilbert then aims to return to school this fall. He wants to live on campus independently and finish the last two classes he needs to graduate as a healthcare administration major. Of course, Coach Ibarra is also aiming to return to the playing field himself.
For now, Gilbert says he’s learning to be thankful for what he already has. Last summer, he paid that appreciation forward when he volunteered to participate, along with current Shepherd Center patients and alums, in Project Rollway, a fashion show at Shepherd Center, that raises funds for the hospital’s adolescent rehabilitation programs.
“That was fun to do,” he says. “I felt special up there. It was humbling, too. I was one of the few people walking, so that was a big reminder to me.”
Today, he wants to share his story with others who may be navigating a journey similar to his. He also wants to share what he’s learned.
“There’s a light somewhere at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “Trust that it’s there, but don’t look for it. Believe me, I know it’s hard not to look for it a lot of the time! But whatever your light is, it will show up once it’s ready to be seen.”
To learn more about Shepherd Center’s Disorders of Consciousness Program, visit shepherd.org/DOC.
Written by Phillip Jordan
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.