Shepherd Center Patients Form Lasting Friendships Following Injury
Peer support provides insight and encouragement.
Luke Hampton and Kelly Blanton didn’t know it at the time, but the casual friendship that developed between the two at Shepherd Center would become an important bond that only people who have faced a similar catastrophic event like a spinal cord injury could truly understand.
“We’re around people all day everyday who are up walking around, feeding themselves – you know, just everything we can’t do for ourselves,” Luke says. “To have somebody who understands where you’re coming from and knows your situation is really important.”
Emily Bowen and Steph von Kuhn like the fact that they don’t typically talk about their traumatic brain injuries when they discuss daily life or the future. “We just want to get on with our lives,” Steph says.
It’s something that staff members at Shepherd Center know well: patients who open up, develop friendships and support one another while in rehabilitation will often have a friend for life who understands them better than many people.
“It is a great relief to know that you can talk with someone about something so personal and have that person understand exactly what you are talking about,” says Minna Hong, supervisor for the spinal cord injury peer support program.
LUKE AND KELLY
Luke Hampton was a high school football and baseball player in Sparta, N.C. He was also on the wrestling team. At a tournament in December 2011, the mat he was using happened to be placed against a wall.
Luke performed a “shoot,” a quick dive at his opponent to try to take him down.
“He sidestepped me and threw me into the wall head first,” Luke says. With that move, Luke sustained a C-4 spinal cord injury.
After surgery at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., and almost four weeks in Shepherd Center’s intensive care unit, Luke transferred to the inpatient spinal cord injury unit on Jan. 1, 2012.
It was about that time when, Kelly Blanton came by his room and introduced herself. Like Luke, she was an 18-year-old from North Carolina.
Kelly, who is from Taylorsville, had been thrown from her horse in a practice ring at a rodeo in Oklahoma in July 2011, resulting in a C-3 to -4 spinal cord injury. She spent four months at Shepherd Center as an inpatient and returned for outpatient therapy a few days before Luke moved out of the ICU.
She had heard about Luke even before her return, and then she learned that she and Luke would have the same therapy team.
“The therapists told me his name and that he’s from North Carolina,” she recalls. “They wanted me to come meet him.”
Luke recalls that at first, “We just told each other about one another. Then it went into talking about our injuries and how they were kind of the same.”
“It was like we were in the same boat,” Kelly says. “They were pretty severe injuries.”
When Kelly was an inpatient, she was the only person on her floor still using a ventilator to breathe. She needed surgery to attach a stimulator to her diaphragm before she could breathe on her own.
When Luke and Kelly met, Luke was in the same situation. “I knew how it was going to go and how hard it was to be the only one on a vent and not really knowing what was going on,” Kelly says.
“I was just starting to get used to everything,” Luke says. “She filled me in on it and talked to me about it and helped me with it.”
Hong says such patient-to-patient conversations are “peer support at its core.”
“There is nothing worse than feeling that no one understands you or knows what you are going through, especially something as big as a spinal cord or brain injury,” she says.
“Our goal is to let people who acquire a spinal cord injury to know that they are not alone,” she says. “And they will not get an extra feather in their cap if they manage alone. We are about sharing tips, trick, ideas and resources. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.”
The Shepherd Spinal Cord Injury Peer Support program is made up of community members and former Shepherd patients who are as much as 40 years or more beyond their injuries.
“They are living life with vigor, passion and gratitude,” Hong says.
Luke and Kelly had similar adjustments to make to regain their vigorous lifestyles.
“We were both really active,” Kelly says. Luke played several sports, and Kelly was a rodeo barrel racer, played tennis and ran track in high school.
“This one commonality we both had, this injury, branches out to be a lot of things – like friendship,” she says.
STEPH AND EMILY
At first glance, you’d think two people couldn’t be more different than Steph von Kuhn and Emily Bowen. Steph grew up in England while Emily was raised in a small town in South Georgia.
But when they met at Shepherd Center, they found they had much more in common than just being assigned to the same hospital floor and group therapy sessions in the brain injury unit.
“It’s funny because she’s from England and she’s just as country as I am,” says Emily, now 23.
Steph, now 25, had followed her parents and younger sister from England to Savannah, Ga., after she graduated from college in 2011.
She comes from a family of avid equestrians and competed as a show jumper. While exercising her horse one day, the animal slipped on wet grass and threw her to the ground. She arrived at Shepherd Center in April 2012 and was admitted to the Acquired Brain Injury Program.
When Steph arrived, Emily had been a patient for two weeks. She was a passenger in a car that had been knocked off the road and into a tree. Even though she was wearing a seat belt, Emily sustained a brain injury from the crash impact.
At Shepherd, their parents met and realized that the young women likely could become friends.
“Our families were the ones who got to talking at first,” Steph says. “Emily and I were still a bit hazy and couldn’t really make sense of the whole situation. We would have had trouble having a conversation at first. It takes a while for speech to come back to full strength.”
Later, Steph recalls, they began talking at meals and got know each other during inpatient therapy and in the outpatient program at Shepherd Pathways in Decatur, Ga.
Emily is hazier on exactly how the friendship started.
“I forgot a lot,” she says. Memory loss is common for people during their recovery from brain injury.
Steph and Emily were both “A” students who had to learn new ways to remember – Steph so she could go to graduate school, Emily to pursue her undergraduate degree.
“My grades before were great, a 3.6 grade point average,” Steph says, “Now I have to actually work twice as hard to get that. I have to start learning things earlier so it goes more into long-term memory.”
“That’s how I am, too,” Emily adds. “I used to have an awesome memory. I used to do theater. I knew everybody’s lines.”
Memory is one of the major challenges brain injury survivors can help each other address, says Shepherd Center counselor Terri Kohn, LPC.
“It gives the survivor a feeling of normalcy as he or she is not the only person expressing a similar feeling or thought,” Kohn says.
In addition to informal friendships and structured group therapy, volunteers from the Brain Injury Peer Visitor Association call on inpatients as well as outpatients at Shepherd. Of the 24 current volunteers, 15 are former Shepherd brain injury patients or their caregivers, says association director Ann Boriskie.
The volunteers made more than 1,100 peer visits at Shepherd Center in 2013.
UNDERSTANDING THE CHALLENGES
Daily life poses greater challenges for Luke and Kelly, both of whom use power wheelchairs.
“When I got home and went into public places, I didn’t feel comfortable,” Luke says. He says he wondered, “What are these people going to ask me? What’s going to happen?”
At Shepherd, Luke says, “Everybody around me liked me and obviously understood where I was coming from.” Back home, family and friends who offered help and encouragement “understand better than most people because they’re around all the time. But people like me and Kelly, who are good friends, that’s who really understands because we’re in the same boat.”
“You can rely on each other,” Kelly says.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Kelly adds. “At times, it’s hard. You can’t be super-positive 100 percent of the time. But you do realize it’s going to be OK. I feel like friends keep your perspective better. You realize that you can do things. You can set goals and go to school and better your life.”
The friends text frequently. Both drive adapted vans with room for a passenger who also uses a chair. So they could make the hour-and-15-minute drive between their hometowns for a movie night or dinner. They’ve also tried bowling.
“We both have an adapter to go on the chairs,” Luke explains.
Kelly, whose injury came shortly after high school graduation, enrolled at North Carolina State University in fall 2013. That made visits harder to arrange, but they keep in touch with calls and texts.
COMMON BONDS BEYOND BRAIN INJURY
Steph and Emily had group therapy together at Shepherd Center. Now, they say, brain injury is not a topic of conversation.
“We leave that off the table,” Emily says. They keep in touch via email, electronic chat, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. What do they talk about?
After several long pauses, Emily says, “Boys.” Both women laugh.
They do have other common interests. Even before they met, Steph had learned to love country music from her younger sister who had arrived fi rst in Georgia.
Emily found Steph “was pretty up to date” on the music, and they have attended a concert together. Both drive pickup trucks.
They’ve been to a shooting range, and hunting is now on the agenda.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Steph, Emily, Kelly and Luke are all looking ahead to education and career goals, some with new outlooks.
Steph had been accepted in the master’s degree program in prosthetics and orthotics at the University of Hartford in Connecticut before her injury. She entered the program after treatment, but then decided to return to Georgia and focus on an advanced degree in physical therapy.
She is looking at graduate schools in the Southeast, determined to stay in her adopted region.
Recently, Steph got on her horse, Tempest, for the first time since the accident.
“It was amazing, just walking around for fi ve minutes,” she says. To avoid further injury, her doctors don’t advise that she return to serious riding.
After her therapy at Shepherd Center, Emily took a class at Middle Georgia College and then tried Armstrong State University, further from home. She used a tutor to help with memory exercises, but decided to return to Middle Georgia where she could have more support from family.
She is now an education major.
Kelly’s experience at Shepherd Center influenced her goals.
“I wanted to be a veterinarian,” Kelly says. “Now I’ve kind of changed my mind. I either want to be in animal science with therapy animals or maybe a counselor, something in psychology.”
Luke, ever the outdoor type, had worked as an intern at an electric company and wanted to be a lineman on power poles.
Now he is thinking about working on the business side of utilities. He has taken business and accounting classes at Wilkes Community College.
Luke and Kelly also hope they can meet more people with similar injuries, who need the kind of help they’ve given each other.
“I will be open to talk to anybody like us, people who don’t have anybody to talk to,” Luke says.
Even injured people with nothing else in common can support each other, Kelly says.
“You’re in the same boat. You know what’s going on,” Kelly says. “There are people you never would have met otherwise, and you realize it’s a good thing to have them in your life.”
Written by David Simpson
Photos by Gary Meek, Gray Whitley and Jeremy Wilburn
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 neurological 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.