Atlanta, GA,
15:22 PM

Custom-Made Care: Anna Katherine Spangler’s Faith Helps Her Heal Post-Spinal Cord Injury

Shepherd Center offers programs that build upon the solid foundation of traditional therapy to support patients’ overall wellness and prepare them and their families for vibrant lives back home.

On June 27, 2023, Anna Katherine Spangler, 18, was home in Huntsville, Alabama, just days after winning a pair of silver medals at the 2023 USA Gymnastics Championships. The elite gymnast, who has trained with the U.S. national trampoline team, was at her hometown gym practicing a new drill when she landed awkwardly on her head.

The fall resulted in a paralyzing C-5 to C-6 fracture-dislocation which led to severe impingement and swelling on her cervical spinal cord. ER doctors in Huntsville didn’t know if AK — as Anna Katherine is known to her friends and family — would make it through emergency surgery.

“We were talking to keep her calm before surgery,” recalls Scott Spangler, AK’s father. “But she looked up at us and said, ‘God knew this was going to happen even before we did. He’s got a plan and a purpose for everything, even this.’ It floored us. She has a strong faith, but, in that moment, wow.”

AK eventually spent more than three months at Shepherd Center through both the inpatient rehabilitation program and the Spinal Cord Injury Day Program. Here, she and her family continued to lean on their faith to sustain their spirits and move forward – and they had support from one of Shepherd Center’s chaplains, Ben Rose, M.Div., BCC, whom they formed a strong bond with.

“Ben came in one of the first days I was there to introduce himself,” AK says. “He’s so encouraging and always rooting for you. Anytime something was bothering me, I knew I could pray with him or talk through it with him, and he would be there for me.”

As part of the Larry L. Prince Chaplaincy Program, Shepherd Center’s chaplains provide spiritual care while honoring the diverse religious backgrounds of all patients, families, and staff. Rose says his role is all about being available, being positive, and providing outlets for patients’ faith practices while away from home.

“It was a joy to acknowledge and explore God’s place in AK’s rehabilitation,” Rose says. “We, as chaplains, assisted AK and her parents in grieving loss while also celebrating the life that lies ahead. I consider that my most important mission as a chaplain here.” 

AK and her family regularly attended Sunday services at Shepherd Center and kept meeting with Chaplain Rose even through AK’s time in the Day Program.

“For us, as a family of faith, it was so appreciated to have someone like Ben as an integral part of the care team there,” Scott adds. “Even if you don’t come from a faith background, it’s such a benefit to have these chaplains, counselors, and psychologists as part of your care team who are all there to encourage you.” 

Back home in Huntsville, AK’s continuing her physical therapy, focused on getting strong enough to operate a manual wheelchair routinely — and not just in “turtle mode,” as AK jokes. She’s back in school, aiming to attend college and work in engineering. And she’s often in touch with a new friend she made at Shepherd Center, 21-year-old Eden Schroeder, a member of the Shepherd Sharks swim team.

During AK’s time in Atlanta, the two young women shared notes on their nearly identical spinal cord injuries — sustained three years apart — and bonded as athletes. AK watched Eden’s swim practices while there, gaining further motivation. Last December, Eden competed in the U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championship. Now, she’s lobbying AK to take up adaptive swimming as her next athletic challenge.

“We’ll see,” AK says. “Each day is a new day. One of my teachers always says something that has proved awesomely true: There’s ‘not yet,’ but ‘later on’ always comes. What that means for me is maybe I can’t do something at this moment. But that won’t always be the case. I can keep working, and later on, maybe I can.”

Written by Phillip Jordan

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.