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By the Numbers: Shepherd Center Rehabilitation Patients with Paraplegia

This infographic provides data on the number of Shepherd Center patients with paraplegia and their outcomes following rehabilitation at the nationally ranked rehabilitation hospital based in Atlanta.

Here are stories of some former patients with paraplegia who demonstrate healthy outcomes.

Profiles of People with Paraplegia:  John Payne

When John Payne of Memphis, Tenn., was going through rehabilitation at Shepherd Center in 1998 for the T-4 spinal cord injury he sustained in a mountain biking accident, a patient named Mike challenged him to a wheelchair race to the top of the hospital’s six-floor parking garage.

“Mike was at Shepherd for a second time, and he would go up and down the halls encouraging everyone to have a good attitude,” John says. “I said I didn’t want to race, but Mike lied to me. He said a girl had done it the day before, and I couldn’t have a girl doing something I couldn’t.”

So they raced to the top of the garage and back down, and it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that John, 34, has been racing ever since. He trains six days a week in a racing wheelchair with the Breakaway Runners Club in Memphis and has competed in numerous marathons and half-marathons.

“I’m not the fastest wheelchair marathoner,” he says “but I have fun with it. It does put stress on the arms and shoulders, and you have to be careful and pay attention. So I take a day off to give it a rest, and so far, it’s been fine.”

Also, John learned from his experience with Mike and Shepherd Center the  satisfaction that comes from encouraging others with injuries.

John remembers lying in his hospital bed and thinking that his injury was impossible to get past. “But at Shepherd, I saw people who in four weeks were getting out of bed, changing clothes and all that, and I thought ‘I can do this, too,’” John explains.

“My family and I had such a great experience at Shepherd,” he says, “that any time we run into someone who has a brain or spinal cord injury, we encourage them to find a way to get to Shepherd Center because it’s such a phenomenal place.”

John recalls Shepherd Center outings that took him to a Braves games, the airport, malls and other places. These outings made him comfortable being in public again, he says. It also encouraged John’s passion for travel, and he has since ventured to numerous cities in the U.S. as well as Turkey, London, Scotland, Spain, France and Morocco.

“I know some hold back when it comes to travel because of the challenges of accessibility,” he says. “But you can make it happen if you work at it. And it helps if you’ve got a big, strong friend to carry you up stairs if you have to.”

John, a senior analyst for Auto Zone, says his faith was important to his recovery, as were the prayers and support from his family and church.

Today, he says, “I’m completely comfortable with my life.”

In fact, John has so completely integrated his recovery into his daily life that most of the people he socializes with are able-bodied. “I don’t really have a disabled group I hang out with,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with associating with people with disabilities, but I hang out with able-bodied people.”


Profiles of People with Paraplegia:  Gary Linfoot

Gary Linfoot of Clarksville, Tenn., is frank about the complete T-10 spinal cord injury he sustained in 2008 when the U.S. Army helicopter he was piloting in Iraq had a mechanical failure and crashed.

“It pretty much sucks,” he says. “But it’s one of those things where you try to adapt to the environment and make things the best they can be.”

Gary flew AH-6 “Little Bird” helicopters for the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, also known as the Night Stalkers. Flying missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them at night, he developed a high threshold for stress and danger, and adjusting to life in a wheelchair was a challenge. But he learned how to do that while in rehabilitation at Shepherd Center.

“The thing that Shepherd did that I really appreciated was get us out into society,” Gary says. “We went to restaurants, and learned about traveling by air and the things to expect. Everybody was upbeat and optimistic. I thought that was very helpful. Whatever I wanted to try, they said, ‘OK, let’s figure out how to do it.’”

He also brought with him the motto “Night Stalkers don’t quit,” and it has helped him adapt to his new life  and improve it wherever possible.

He has participated on panels of the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs in Washington, D.C., which encourage scientific research on treatment and quality-of-life improvements for people with spinal cord injury. In 2008, Gary received a high-tech wheelchair called the iBot from the Huey 091 Foundation, which provides wheelchairs and other devices to wounded and disabled military personnel.

The iBot enables Gary to climb stairs, cross curbs, walk his dog in uneven terrain and work on his 565-horsepower Ford Mustang. He also participated in a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington to promote the chair, which is no longer being manufactured.

“The thing about being in a chair,” Gary says, “is that it’s awkward in social situations. You’re down so low, and you find yourself in a corner so you’re not run over. But in the iBot, I can raise myself to eye level with people and be more approachable.”

In 2011, Gary rode a handcycle wheelchair, and his wife, Mari, rode a bicycle in the 530-mile Ride 2 Recovery, which raised money for the treatment of wounded soldiers.

Gary left the Army in 2010 and now trains new helicopter pilots for the 160th in a full motion and visual flight simulator.

“I can’t climb into the simulator myself and instruct them, so I have to sit at a console and talk them through stuff,” he says. “It’s taught me to communicate and have patience because I can’t grab the controls and correct it.”

In the past year, Gary has also taken part in experiments with Ekso and Indego exoskeleton devices, fueling his hope that he may yet walk again.

“I understand nothing is going to happen fast,” he says. “I may not walk in my lifetime, but I’m optimistic about the new technologies and robotics. In five or 10 years, who knows?”


Profiles of People with Paraplegia:  Ashley Reeves

It took fear a while to catch up with Ashley Reeves. After she sustained a T-11 to -12 spinal cord injury in 2009, Ashley spent two months at Shepherd Center undergoing treatment and rehabilitation. Three months later, she went back to high school in Lakeland, Fla., and not only graduated with her class, but was also the prom queen.

However, the idea of going to college scared her. Could she drive herself? Could she load and unload her wheelchair? Would strangers help if some places were inaccessible?

“My fear wasn’t about living a normal life,” Ashley says. “It was about going back to school and seeing how people would treat me.”

Ashley, 21, had always been a happy, upbeat person who was, in her words, “outgoing and down to earth.” At Shepherd, she gravitated to people who were worse off than she was, but still had a smile on their faces.

“I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Shepherd,” she says. “They helped me get back to normal.”

But what reassured her at Shepherd gave her pause when it came to college.

“You’re in a wheelchair world at Shepherd,” she says.  “Everybody’s the same. But in the real world, no one is like me.”

For two years, Ashley focused on her rehabilitation and hanging out with friends. Finally, in the fall of 2012, she knew she was ready. She enrolled at Polk State College in nearby Winter Haven, and her boyfriend accompanied her on the first day of classes.

“Once I was there,” she says, “it took less than a month to get over my fear. I’ve got a lot of friends and supporters now.”

Ashley drives herself to school, loads and unloads her chair, does her stretching exercises and goes to the gym every day. Her passion now is being healthy.

“I don’t really like to work out, but I don’t want to get fat,” she says. “So I do the hand-cycle and get on the machines.”

She is carrying a full academic load and wants to be a pharmacist, an educational commitment that “takes forever and a year,” she says.

She also befriended a girl she knew in high school, but was never close to. “Cali makes sure I’m still doing all the normal things,” Ashley says. “She makes sure that no one treats me like I’m not human, and she pushes me to be independent. Sometimes, it’s easy for me to let someone take over. She makes sure that doesn’t happen.”

When Ashley graduated from high school, she used leg braces and portable parallel bars to cross the stage and get her diploma. Last year, she went back and encouraged the students to face their fears. Her message then was the same as it is today:  “Don’t ever give up. No matter how bad it gets, you’ve got to keep on keeping on.”

Today, Ashley says, “I don’t look at myself as being in a wheelchair. I’m different, but normal to me and to other people.”

Written by John Christensen

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.