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Beyond Therapy Helps Strengthen Body and Mind

North Carolina man focuses on his continued rehabilitation three years after sustaining a spinal cord injury in a car crash.

The medical staff at Halifax Health Medical Center in Daytona Beach, Florida, didn’t expect Madison Cawthorn to survive the automobile accident he had in 2014 when a friend fell asleep at the wheel. He sustained numerous injuries, including a severed kidney, collapsed lungs, ruptured diaphragm, a T-12 spinal cord injury, broken pelvis and ankles, with third degree burns and severe internal bleeding.

But Madison did survive, and after five weeks in ICU, he was flown to Shepherd Center for rehabilitation. The significant impact the injuries would have on his life became real to him the day he arrived at Shepherd when he saw the bronze statue of wheelchair athlete Terry Lee at the entrance to the hospital.

“Until we drove up that first day, I thought I’d be at the Naval Academy in no time,” recalls Madison, 21, of Hendersonville, North Carolina. 

He had always been an active person, hunting, playing football and other sports whenever he could. He was awarded a full Marine Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship to attend North Carolina State University. However it was the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he had set his sights, received a congressional nomination and planned to play football.

But, on his way back from a vacation with a friend in Florida during his senior year of high school, Madison was injured in the automobile crash. 

“When they called to tell me about the accident, they didn’t expect him to live,” says Madison’s mother, Priscilla Cawthorn. “I remember the hospital told us he was one of the most injured patients they had.” 

In just five weeks following the accident, Madison dropped from 205 to 139 pounds and was told he may not walk again. He would have to start all over again rebuilding his strength and muscles.

“I’ve had eight surgeries, including two spinal reconstructions, one on my pelvis and a skin graft,” Madison says.

But after completing Shepherd Center’s inpatient and day programs for spinal cord injury rehabilitation, Madison started college in fall 2016 at Patrick Henry College, a small Christian college in rural Virginia, not far from Washington, D.C. During his winter break, he participated in Shepherd’s Beyond Therapy® program to continue his rehabilitation.

“Beyond Therapy® has been an absolute Godsend,” Madison says. “They really help me set goals that are both realistic and optimistic.”

Beyond Therapy® is more than a traditional rehabilitation therapy program. Combining the expertise of therapists from a variety of backgrounds – including physical therapists, exercise physiologists, aquatic specialists and yoga specialists – the program uses fitness-based principles to drive neuroplasticity, the concept that the body can reorganize nerve connections after a serious injury. The program focuses on promoting lifelong wellness as well as maximizing muscle and neural return through a series of intensive strengthening and functional activity by concentrating on weaker muscles and nerve connections.

“His gait is the biggest thing we’re working on,” says Taylor Jones, an exercise physiologist at Beyond Therapy®. “We’re working on strengthening his lower extremities along with doing some exoskeleton training to give him the feedback his body needs,” 

Madison has gotten his right quadricep, both of his abductors and his hip abductors to work that way. 

In addition to the sessions he does in Beyond Therapy®, Madison works out on his own.

“I have different muscles that will come back at different times,” Madison says. “At night, I’ll try to remember how to walk and think about flexing different muscles, but they won’t always work when I want them to. The therapists then get me to flex the muscles around the muscles that won’t flex, which helps kick start them.”

Jones says Madison is very focused on his rehabilitation. “He knows what he wants to do, where he wants to go, and he uses that in his physical therapy,” Jones explains. “He’s willing to let us push the boundaries with him.”

Beyond Therapy® has made a remarkable difference in Madison’s day-to-day abilities, says his mother, Priscilla.

“They’ve made the quality of his physical life a lot better,” she says. “They’ve given him exercises to work on when he’s back in school, he’s building up his endurance and he is getting the use of a lot more muscles, as well as his sensations back all the time. We have hope that he’ll be able to walk again.”

Julia Fortna, one of Madison’s physical therapists, says she’s seen both physical and mental boosts since Madison started in Beyond Therapy®.

“I think it’s helped make him more confident and given him a vision of things he can work towards,” Fortna says. “He has more confidence with his mobility throughout the day.”

Like any client at Beyond Therapy®, Madison says trust was key in allowing him to get the most out of his sessions.

“I had to learn to trust my therapists,” he explains. “They’re here to help you, so the more you trust them, the better you’re able to do the intense work they’re asking you to do. You know you get out of it what you put into it.”

Before going to Virginia, he worked for U.S. Congressman Mark Meadows of the 11th district in North Carolina, briefing him on the news of the day, as well as doing other work to help keep him informed on the issues. It’s all part of his road toward earning an elected office someday.

“After a spinal cord injury, you reassess your value in the world,” Madison says. “Congressman Meadows showed me the value of my work, and that helped me tremendously. In rehab, I use that confidence I learned there. It’s given me a renewed fire.”

What’s more, he became engaged in spring 2017, traveling across the country to ask his fiancee’s parents for permission beforehand. Madison and his fiancee, Hailey, plan to marry at the end of 2017.

In the meantime, Madison is staying focused on his continued rehabilitation. “From what I’ve seen, Madison has no fear of therapy,” Jones says. “He was able to cheer up another client recently. He gave that person a pep talk about the options they still have available. He’s a great cheerleader.”

Madison is quick to credit his outlook and progress to his own cheering section. “I would attribute my success to my family, Hailey, the incredible staff at Shepherd Center and my faith,” he says. “It’s the centerpiece of my life. It’s kept me sane and gives me a strong foundation I can rely on.”

By David Terraso
Photos by Gary Meek

About Shepherd Center

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.