An Opportunity to Give Back: Marvin Zetina-Jimenez
After sustaining a spinal cord injury, Marvin Zetina-Jimenez, 20, wants to use his education to help people with disabilities.
Some people are naturally talented at sports; others are gifted in the arts. For Marvin Zetina-Jimenez, 20, school has always been the place where he’s excelled.
“Learning is fun for me,” Marvin says. “Even when it takes practice and discipline, when things are easier, I guess they are always more fun!”
Marvin’s favorite subjects are science and math, something his dad Mario, an industrial engineer, certainly understands. Mario and his wife, Maria, who are originally from Mexico, moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1999 for Mario’s job. Marvin and his younger brother, Max, were born and raised there. The family has a tight bond — one that Marvin would rely on when the unexpected happened on July 13, 2018.
That summer, Marvin went to camp after completing his junior year of high school.
“I decided to try surfing lessons,” Marvin recalls. “As we were surfing, I felt a pinch in my lower back. Initially, I thought it was maybe just pain from exercise, but over the course of an hour, I could barely stand or feel my legs anymore.”
Marvin was rushed to New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, North Carolina. During his 10 days there, he learned he had sustained an incomplete L-1 spinal cord injury from surfer’s myelopathy, a rare condition triggered by hyperextension of the back while surfing. Blood flow to his spinal cord was disrupted while he arched his back, and it caused paralysis in his legs.
“With this condition, you never know what your prognosis will be,” Marvin says. “Some people recover fully, and some don’t recover at all.”
By the end of the month, Marvin had regained the ability to twitch his quad muscle — a glimmer of hope as he moved on to the next phase of his recovery in Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program.
Rehabilitation and Return to School
In total, Marvin spent seven weeks at Shepherd Center, first as an inpatient and then as an outpatient in the Spinal Cord Injury Day Program.
“Once I got to Shepherd, the goal was to see how far the team could get me and for them to give me tools to be as independent as possible,” Marvin says.
While Marvin worked hard in physical and occupational therapy, his parents took turns driving to Atlanta and staying in the Irene and George Woodruff Family Residence Center. Max was also there to support him. The younger brother had to get used to the role reversal of being the one to support his older brother during this challenging time.
“It was a role reversal in the sense that he would usually look out for me or teach me things,” Max says. “He is like my protective spirit guide. When he was injured, it switched around, and I was trying to give back for all he’d done for me in years past.”
Marvin certainly felt the support. The two have always been very close, enjoying playing video games, cooking and playing soccer together.
“I remember it was Max’s birthday a week after my injury, and we had to celebrate it in the hospital,” Marvin says. “He’s amazing and has been such a solid pillar for me to rely on.”
In addition to his physical goals, Marvin focused on his education during his stay at Shepherd. Because he was still in the hospital during the first two weeks of his senior year of high school, he worked with Kelsey Shearman, MA, Shepherd’s Adolescent Spinal Cord Rehabilitation Program academic coordinator, to make sure he stayed on track.
“Marvin is a dream student,” Shearman says. “He’s smart, works hard and is respectful of everyone. When I worked with him, he was taking AP calculus and AP world history, and it was pretty clear just how dedicated he was to his education.”
When Marvin was discharged from Shepherd Center, he was still on track to finish school on time with the rest of his classmates. He had also progressed physically, using a wheelchair to travel long distances and canes everywhere else.
“In one word, I would describe my recovery as ‘lucky,’” Marvin says. “When you’ve been injured, you can really feel like you’ve hit rock bottom and like you’re so out of control. Shepherd gave me a place to focus on myself and my improvement rather than worrying about other things. They push their patients to do their best so you can get to a place where you’ll feel comfortable with yourself. Miracles happen at Shepherd, and they wouldn’t happen without help from the amazing therapists.”
Graduating to Independence
On Marvin’s first day back to high school, two of his therapists, Sarah Leonard, PT, DPT, ATP, and Shanna Thorpe, CTRS, went with him to provide an overview of his injury and accessibility accommodations to his teachers.
“Fun fact: I got to drive to school on my first day back all by myself!” Marvin says. “I remember parking, getting out of the car and putting together my wheelchair. Then I met with Sarah and Shanna to go talk to my teachers. They were great.”
Even though Marvin was excited to be back, he admits that returning to high school was a little tough at first.
“At the time, my high school was the largest in North Carolina, so it was tough to get around in my wheelchair initially,” Marvin says. “The reason I could handle it mentally was because at Shepherd, they helped me develop a strong mindset.”
All of Marvin’s efforts paid off. Two months into his senior year, he was able to move around school without a wheelchair. By the end of the year, he was walking up and down the stairs without any aids.
Amidst all his rehabilitation milestones, Marvin had another event looming before him: college application decisions. Having a passion for science and math, he applied to several schools, including his dream school, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“By December 2018, I had started to play soccer with my dad and brother in the park as part of my rehab on the weekends,” Marvin says. “While we were there, I got my decision. I got into MIT. I was in disbelief! It’s such an amazing school, and I was ecstatic I could get in.”
Today, Marvin is a junior majoring in computer science and engineering, with a minor in math. Over the summer, he participated in the Google STEP internship — a program for first- and second-year undergraduate students with a passion for computer science. Inspired by his spinal cord injury and his experience at Shepherd Center, Marvin wants to use his developing skillset to help others with disabilities.
“I got very lucky with how I recovered,” Marvin says. “Now that I’ve been given this amazing opportunity, I want to help others. I want to use what I learn to develop technology that can help people with spinal cord injuries.”
Need more insight on returning to school? View the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation's college selection guide here.
Written by Damjana Alverson
Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, multiple amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. Ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top 10 hospitals for rehabilitation and the best in the Southeast, Shepherd Center treats more than 850 inpatients and 7,600 outpatients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.