Conquering Fears and Learning Acceptance
Approaching the 10th anniversary since sustaining her spinal cord injury, Gail Yordy is a testament to embracing who you are and leaving fear behind.
In May 2019, Gail Yordy, 61, attended Shepherd Center’s Adventure Skills Workshop (ASW) like she does every year.
“I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” says Gail of Manchester, Tennessee.
ASW is an annual event held at Lake Martin in Jackson’s Gap, Alabama, where people with spinal cord injury (SCI) or disease, acquired brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, post-polio syndrome, Guillain-Barré syndrome, transverse myelitis or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) can get hands-on practice in activities they have always loved, as well as those they have always wanted to try. Attendees also make lasting friendships, and Gail is no exception.
“I look forward to spending time with my best friend, Kim Harrison, each year,” Gail says. “People call us by our combined nickname, Kail, since we’re so close!”
After spending the day enjoying time with friends and tubing on the lake, Gail received a pleasant surprise. Earlier that year, she had raised $1,141 for Shepherd Center’s Recreational Therapy Program through social media. The Shepherd Center team recognized her contribution and thanked her for the generous gift in front of all the ASW participants.
“Everybody applauded and went wild,” Gail recalls. “Without recreational therapy, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wish I could’ve given them more.”
Gail’s journey with Shepherd Center began on January 4, 2011. While she was in her kitchen at home, she experienced a seizure and fell backward. Her neck hit the stove, resulting in an incomplete C-3 to C-5 SCI. She went to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
“My whole right side was ‘off’ like I’d had a stroke,” Gail says. “I couldn’t walk. Finally, my surgeon told me I had broken my neck.”
Gail transferred to Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program that month. She describes the initial feeling of being confused and feeling helpless.
“I was scared to death when I first got to Shepherd Center,” Gail says. “I didn’t talk to anybody for a while and rebelled against doing therapy.”
In the beginning, Gail only really opened up to her aunt and uncle who live in Maine.
“I’m very close with my Aunt Liz and my Uncle John,” Gail says. “My aunt would call me all the time while I was at Shepherd and remind me that I am strong enough to get through this.”
It was ultimately a dog named Murphy that broke Gail out of her shell.
“I was doing physical therapy when they brought in Murphy,” Gail said. “I am right-handed and have had to learn to use my left hand for everything after my injury. The therapists asked me to throw Murphy the ball using my left hand, and I did it! That dog brought me back.”
That same day, Gail returned to her room and found a stuffed toy dog on her bed from her aunt which Gail decided to name after Murphy, the dog that helped her. She still has it to this day.
As Gail came out of her shell, she began opening up to more people. In addition to her aunt, uncle and husband, Turk, she leaned on her mother-in-law, Chris Yordy, along with other family members for support.
When Turk told Shepherd Center staff that Gail enjoyed swimming, they encouraged her to get in the pool and try it. She agreed to do it once the therapists revealed they planned to take her to the Georgia Aquarium to swim with the whale sharks.
By February 2011, Gail had graduated to the Spinal Cord Injury Day Program. She credits Kelly Edens, recreation therapy manager, and Cecilia Rider, recreation therapy associate manager, for pushing her past what she thought her limits were and never giving up on her.
“I grew to really trust them, which isn’t easy for me,” Gail says. “I was treated with such respect. They challenged me, and because of that, I worked my butt off. I can never repay them enough.”
Refusing to Hide
On January 4, 2021, Gail will celebrate the 10-year-anniversary of sustaining her injury.
“This is a big milestone for me,” Gail says. “I’ve had to relearn how to do many things, but I’m focused on enjoying my life. I want to live!”
Gail continues to give back to Shepherd Center. Whenever Kelly or Cecilia ask, Gail speaks to groups about her experience with the hospital. She also tries things she never did pre-injury like water polo and tubing. A self-described “water baby,” she exercises in her pool at home to maintain the progress she has made through the years.
“Turk and I gauge my progress from year to year by the pool,” Gail says. “The first year, I needed his help to get in the pool. Now, I can get in the pool by myself, and I do water aerobics.”
Mental health has also been a priority for Gail. Accepting her injury has opened her up to many things she was afraid to do before.
“I used to hide my right hand like it was a broken wing,” Gail says. “Now, I refuse to hide it.”
Gail also learned to open up to her family and friends during difficult times.
“Don’t be afraid,” Gail says. “Let them in. If you don’t feel like you can talk to friends or family, then talk with your therapist. That’s what helped me.”
Gail is a testament to letting go of fear and embracing who you are.
“The only limitations we have are the ones we put on ourselves,” Gail says. “Even if you can’t do things the way you used to, there are always different routes you can take to do whatever you want to do in life.”
Written by Damjana Alverson
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 740 inpatients, nearly 280 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.