Arkansas State University Student Returns to School One Year After Freak Accident
Natalie Eaton pushes through rehabilitation and learns a lot along the way.
Natalie Eaton was only two days into her freshman year in 2014 at Arkansas State University when a freak accident changed her life. She didn’t know then how much she would learn – and in some cases relearn – in the 12 months to come.
Having just arrived on campus, Natalie was enjoying a cookout in the backyard of a campus fraternity house. Only a few yards away, two fellow students were playing a makeshift game of baseball with two unlikely objects – a football and a golf club.
As one “pitched” the football, the other swung the golf club, which, upon impact, broke, flew through the air, then pierced Natalie’s neck, plunging her to the pavement.
“I thought someone hit me in the head with a ball bat,” she says, recalling the force. “It wasn’t until I turned my neck to see what happened that I heard something scrape the concrete.” It was the golf club. “I couldn’t move anything. It was very traumatic.” Natalie’s brother, who was attending his medical residency close by, was able to make it to her side and help stabilize her before an ambulance rushed her to a local hospital.
After only an hour there, a medical flight crew airlifted her in critical condition to Regional One Health in Memphis, where, in emergency surgery, doctors removed the club from her neck. They also performed spinal fusion surgery because the club had broken two vertebrae, leaving her with Brown Sequard Syndrome, a tear of one-half of the spinal cord that impairs a person’s sensation and movement.
“I didn’t even know what happened until someone asked if I remembered being at the fraternity house, and that’s all it took to recall everything,” she says.
After three weeks in the Memphis hospital, Natalie transferred to Shepherd Center, where for the next six months she underwent intensive therapy to reclaim abilities she once had never thought twice about.
“At first, I was learning to feed myself again, brush my teeth, take a shower, dress myself,” she says. “Eventually, I started to stand up, then walk. It was a very slow process.”
Progress, however, came, and it has been remarkable, says Cathi Dugger, a physical therapist in the spinal cord injury adolescent program at Shepherd Center.
“It was rough going in the beginning because of all the pain,” Dugger says. “We didn’t really know what to expect. With that kind of injury, you just never know. When we saw her determination, however, I realized we were going to get a lot further.”
Natalie’s mother, Fonda, stayed with her through much of the rehabilitation, sleeping on a sofa in Natalie’s hospital room.
“It was very hard on us,” Natalie says. “But Mom stayed hopeful and optimistic.”
And so did Natalie's Shepherd Center therapists.
“They pushed me extremely hard to do more and more,” she says. “And I’m so thankful for it.” The injury left Natalie with normal movement on her left side, but not good feeling. Conversely, her right side had limited movement, but good feeling.
“Natalie had such a great work ethic,” Dugger says.
Her hard work at Shepherd Center has paid off, and her recovery has exceeded early expectations.
“I have to take it slow, but every day I gain a little bit more motion,” she says. “I’m learning to use my right arm.”
Motor skills, however, aren’t the only thing Natalie is learning. Having just resumed her studies at Arkansas State, she is pursuing a major in public relations, hoping one day to work for a nonprofit organization. Her dream job? A PR position at Shepherd Center.
In the meantime, she says she will continue with the exercises she began at Shepherd Center, working out at the gym, learning to adapt, even becoming more social again.
Although she’s excited and grateful to have returned to school, perhaps the greater lesson in all of this won’t be found in a book or a classroom.
“Moving ahead: That’s the only way to handle an experience like this,” she says. “No one knows what’s going to happen in their lives. They often can’t choose. I didn’t choose what happened to me, but I can choose how I go forward. I’m grateful to be alive.”
Editor’s Note: A service dog named Georgie has accompanied Natalie to school to support her as she continues her recovery. Friends have created a fundraising web page (gofundme.com/thegeorgieproject) where individuals can register their own support of Natalie and help offset some of the expenses that come with a full-time service dog, including veterinary care, a crate and supplies, a dog vest and other costs incurred when Georgie must travel for additional training.
Written by Shawn Reeves
Photos by Matthew Walton
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.