Former patients injured in pedestrian accidents share their stories and offer injury prevention advice.
When driving, Patrick Helper-Ferris makes an extra effort at every intersection to turn his head and look for pedestrians in his blind spot. Jay O’Neal pays for taxi rides for inebriated restaurant patrons. Von Fusco tells his friends to use crosswalks on foot and to put down their phones while driving.
Be alert. Eliminate distractions. Don’t drive after drinking. It’s simple advice — often repeated and often forgotten. But it’s easy to remember for these three former Shepherd Center patients, each of whom was a pedestrian struck by an automobile.
The occurrence of incidents like this is significant. The federal government recorded 4,280 pedestrian fatalities and an estimated 70,000 injuries in 2010.
“When a car hits a pedestrian, you have this huge mass that’s colliding with something a fraction of its weight,” says Shepherd Center physician Anna Elmers, M.D. “So just by sheer physics, the injuries that occur are going to be significant — often multiple trauma, broken bones and brain and spinal cord injuries.”
In fact, the severity of brain and spinal cord injuries may mean that other injuries, such as ligament damage to knees, may not even have been diagnosed by the time patients arrive at Shepherd Center, Dr. Elmers notes.
“It’s difficult to tell in a trauma setting what a patient ultimately will be able to do,” she says. She has learned that some recoveries are surprising.
Patrick Helper-Ferris didn’t use his usual corner to cross Memphis’ Central Avenue on a Saturday morning walk with his two dogs, Hector and Percival, on July 11, 2009. He didn’t like being shielded from the road by the thick hedge on the northeast corner of the intersection.
“But it was a very hot day, and that hedge was providing shade. So my dogs wanted to go to that shade,” Patrick recalls.
When the traffic light changed, he took the dogs briskly into the crosswalk to be sure he could get across the five-lane road.
“I don’t remember being struck,” Patrick says. From the police investigation, he knows a driver unfamiliar with the neighborhood was looking for street signs and didn’t see the traffic light. The car, traveling at 40 to 45 miles an hour, struck a sport utility vehicle “so hard that it spun around 360 degrees and knocked me out of the crosswalk and back onto the sidewalk I had just left,” he explains.
Patrick, now 43, remembers nothing of the next two weeks. It was a frightening time for his wife, Laura Helper-Ferris. She returned home from a tai chi class that Saturday to find one of the dogs, Hector, on the front porch. Soon after, a woman arrived who had found an injured Percival at the accident scene. She had taken the dog to a veterinarian and used the dog collar to find Laura. They went to the accident scene and tracked Patrick to the Regional Medical Center at Memphis.
He had sustained a complete T-2 spinal cord injury, causing paralysis from his chest down. His left wrist and clavicle also were broken, causing severe nerve damage in that arm. His head was hit hard enough to damage his peripheral vision on the left side.
After 10 days with his life in the balance, Patrick had spinal surgery in Memphis. He was on a ventilator when he arrived at Shepherd Center on July 27, 2009. He needed multiple procedures to overcome his lung problems, but finally was able to breathe on his own.
In physical and occupational therapy, Patrick learned to roll, sit up, slide on a board from bed to chair, and use a swing and lift for the toilet and shower. Physical therapy helped restore about 25 percent of the function of his damaged left arm. “The index finger and thumb can close, so that helps,” he says.
“I tried to use my hands as much as I could, especially the left one — practiced working those arms, turning the chair, driving the chair,” he recalls.
Laura stayed in Atlanta throughout Patrick’s four months of treatment, living first in housing provided by Shepherd Center and then with a woman who responded to a call for help from the Quaker community. That host even permitted Hector and the mended Percival to come along. Later, she lived with Patrick in a Shepherd Center apartment when he graduated to Shepherd’s Day Program. Laura recalls that Shepherd Center therapists were “incredible teachers,” training her to help Patrick move in and out of his chair, dress his lower body and even to suction a tracheotomy tube, although the last task proved unnecessary as he recovered.
She described his homecoming on Dec. 5, 2009 as “triumphant.” Friends, neighbors, Quakers, family and coworkers pitched in to help modify the couple’s home for Patrick. They raised money and even helped design and build wheelchair ramps and bathroom and kitchen renovations.
After more therapy and four followup surgeries in Memphis, Patrick resumed the college classes he had begun before the accident with the support of his employer. In January 2011, he returned to his job as an information systems administrator. He expects to receive his college diploma in January 2014.
In 2012, Patrick started working as a volunteer counselor for a Memphis suicide prevention hotline.
“I had been looking for an opportunity to give back,” he says. “Since the accident, I’ve really been humbled by the generosity and kindness of just about everyone in the world — certainly, my family, friends and coworkers. But anywhere I go, strangers hold doors and are very helpful.”
Patrick now drives a customized van, purchased with family support. One of his persistent injuries is a vision “field cut,” like a smudge on the left lens of a pair of glasses. He adds, “When I stop at an intersection, I definitely turn my head around to be sure I’m not missing anyone stepping from a corner, especially on my left side.”
Jay O’Neal “woke up” one day in 2006 at Shepherd Center, looking in a bathroom mirror.
The face looking back at him was scarred. His head was shaved.
“I thought, ‘What happened to me?’ I was kind of waking up to the world,” says Jay, now 28. “I’m glad it happened at Shepherd because they were so much better able to explain it to me and handle me.”
Shepherd Center professionals explained that a drunken driver had veered off the road and hit him as he walked toward his car after a church outing at a Columbus, Ga., park, on the night of June 14, 2006.
The impact “completely crushed” his pelvis, requiring major reconstructive surgery at Columbus Regional Hospital. “I’ve got a lot of titanium bolts, screws and that kind of thing,” he says.
“They saved my life,” Jay says. “My family was all excited about it.” Then a doctor told his relatives: “You don’t understand. That’s not his worst injury.”
All four lobes of Jay’s brain had been injured. When doctors let him emerge from a medically induced coma, he was confused and prone to outbursts. His family had been told to consider a nursing home, and then “Shepherd Center found us,” he says. Only after his transfer to Shepherd did Jay regain awareness of what was happening to him.
“What I love about Shepherd Center is they try to build community among patients and staff,” Jay says. He dined with other patients and was expected to keep track of his own treatment schedule.
“They taught me how to be self-reliant and functioning,” Jay says. “Every morning, I had to look at the therapy schedule and see where to be. My recovery was up to me.” He also credits Shepherd with promoting early therapy for patients with brain injury, rather than waiting for the brain to heal itself. The approach worked for him.
“It was a gradual thing,” he recalls. “I’m not going to lie and say there was never a time that I sat there and cried because my life had changed. But there were things that would happen that would make me realize life isn’t all that much different.”
One was an outing with a fellow patient. They got approval one day to go with their mothers to an offsite restaurant — to the horror of their mothers. “They said, ‘You’re not leaving the hospital.’ But we did. It made me realize I’m normal. I thought, ‘Look at me, I’m in public.’”
Jay’s family participated in training at Shepherd Center before he went home, and he continued to improve with physical, speech and cognitive therapy in Columbus.
Jay had been pursuing paramedic training before the accident. But in fall 2007, he transferred to Columbus State University and became a communications major. “I think it is quite ironic,” he says, because his family was told at one point that he would have to relearn how to read, write and talk again. He wrote a paper on patient communication at rehabilitation hospitals, centered on his Shepherd Center experience. The paper was approved for presentation at a national conference.
He expects to receive his diploma in December 2013, but he already is working as executive director of the Contact Disability Resource Center in Columbus.
Now, he works to prevent drunken driving. He is alert in restaurants to patrons stumbling toward the door. “I’ll pay for their taxi, and then I’ll go to the bartender and say you’re overpouring,” Jay says.
He calls his healing “a true gift from God” and says he has no anger toward the driver who hit him.
“She needs her own healing,” Jay says. “It was a mistake. I’m getting better and I hope she’s getting better. I don’t regret the accident. This has made me who I am.”
Von Fusco, 18, of Orlando, Fla., would still like to have a career in the Air Force, though he knows his career path may have to change. That is the strongest sign of his recovery since he was literally knocked off an Orlando street.
He and a friend got off a city bus on the way to another friend’s home. It was some distance to the nearest crosswalk, but they started across the street while the light for oncoming traffic was red. They started too late.
“I was told the driver was on the phone and hit the gas when the light turned green,” Von says.
The impact broke his legs, shattered his right wrist and severely injured his brain. That was Sept. 3, 2012.
“I don’t remember the two weeks before the accident or anything until my birthday on Oct. 21,” he says. “I woke up with two metal rods in my legs. That’s how I knew something happened.”
In high school JROTC, Von routinely ran 10 miles. But when he regained his faculties on Oct. 21, he needed a helmet to protect his head when he walked.
At Shepherd Center, Von started walking slowly with a therapist close behind for support. But he progressed quickly. He graduated from inpatient care on Nov. 6 and left Shepherd Pathways outpatient care on Dec. 14.
“You need inner strength,” he says. “What gave me the physical strength was the doctors’ and therapists’ work with me. What gave me the spiritual strength was the love of my friends and family.”
Once home, Von got back on track at Colonial High School, doing some classwork at home. He graduated with his class this past June.
By summer, he was “pretty much up to speed” and training to run in a 5K race.
While on disability status, he would like to attend college if he can secure funding. Otherwise, he will work when he is cleared for employment. In either case, he still hopes to join the Air Force when he’s 23. His father is a full-time recruiter in the Air Force Reserve.
Von is able to drive now, and he does so with caution.
“One thing I never do is touch my cell phone while driving. There’s no reason to,” he says. He spreads that message to his friends.
“A majority — not all of them unfortunately — but a majority of them do learn from what happened to me,” he says.
Written By David Simpson
Photography By Jamie Harmon, Louie Favorite and Jacque Brund
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 900 inpatients, 575 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year.