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University of South Carolina Student Returns to School after Rehabilitation for a Spinal Cord Injury She Sustained When Struck by a Stray Bullet

Martha Childress was waiting for a taxi to take her back to the University of South Carolina campus in October 2013 after a night out with a friend. It would be 10 months before she would return to campus, and when she arrived, she would be using a wheelchair to get there.

An argument erupted nearby that night, shots were fired and Martha was struck by a stray bullet. She sustained a complete T-11 spinal cord injury that left her with paraplegia.

But after eight weeks of inpatient rehabilitation at Shepherd Center and a spring and summer of outpatient rehabilitation, Martha was ready to go back to school.

“It is like restarting my freshman year and getting back on my own,” said Martha, who returned to USC this month. “I know there will be challenges, but I'm ready to see what it's like to be on my own again."

That attitude is a dramatic change from when she arrived at Shepherd Center a week after she was injured.

“I was angry, and I took it out on my family,” she said. “I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I didn’t want to go to therapy. I didn’t want to do anything.”

In fact, Martha wasn't even sure why she was at Shepherd Center. But her mother, brother and stepsister had visited the hospital and were sure it was the right place.

“I was terrified when we got there because I knew nothing,” said her mother, Pam Childress. But after touring the hospital, meeting therapists and seeing patients undergoing rehabilitation, Pam said:  “I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Everyone was so positive. We met (co-founder) Mrs. Alana Shepherd, and she and all of the staff, whatever their roles, were all so positive. It was phenomenal.”

Although she felt helpless and feared being dependent on others for the rest of her life, Martha decided, "This is my life now, and I've got to make the best of it."

Her therapists, she said, "pushed me to be the best I could be. I had no idea how grueling it would be. It takes a toll mentally and physically, working that hard, but it was the best place I could have been.

“And they made it fun. It wasn't just a task because they made me smile and laugh," she added. "They made me realize that what we were doing was in my best interest, and they wanted to help me have a better and more fulfilling life."

Eventually, Martha bonded with her therapists.

"You spend so much time with them, and they want you to be comfortable with them," she said. "They made the whole experience worthwhile. I got to know them and about things in their lives. They were very open and made me feel very comfortable."

She also connected with fellow patients. One was an older man with a high-level spinal cord injury, who used a power chair.

"He reminded me of a grandfather," Martha said. "He was very wise and kind, and he was always smiling and singing. He made everyone feel better."

A 15-year-old boy who had quadriplegia gave her perspective. "I thought about how hard it must be for him,” Martha said. “But he was doing therapy and smiling, and that made me feel I could do it, too. Every day I saw people who were worse than I was, and I realized I had a chance to have a life again."

When Martha got home, she realized that she could do most of the things she’d done before, but in a new way.

“There was a mixture of excitement and nervousness and anxiety,” she said. “I wanted to be home with my friends, but Shepherd Center is like a bubble. You feel so safe there, and people are used to seeing people in a wheelchair. It was scary at first, getting out in public at home. People were surprised to see me. They didn’t think I’d want to be out and have such a good attitude. It was fun to shock people.”

She also went back to Shepherd Center and had lunch with her therapists. “I’m so thankful for everybody there,” she said. “They changed my life. I’ll be forever grateful for what they did for me.”

Pam Childress is grateful, too.

“I went back to visit the trauma surgeon and told him he saved Martha’s life,” Pam said. “The team at Shepherd Center gave her back to me.”

Martha continued her therapy at home earlier this year. She also took online courses at USC and began driving. “I’d drive myself crazy if I had to stay home all the time," she said. "I had appointments just about every day.”

A runner before her injury, Martha tried adaptive tennis last summer and did so well that she attended a week-long camp in Mission Viejo, Calif., with disabled players from around the world.

She also contacted officials at USC and found them responsive and helpful in trying to make the campus more wheelchair accessible.

"I wasn’t sure how much I’d be able to control when I got back," Martha said, "but I decided to take it one day at a time."

For more information on spinal cord injury rehabilitation at Shepherd Center, click here.

Written by John Christensen
Photos by Gary Meek

About Shepherd Center

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, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.