Former Shepherd Center Patient Shines in Adaptive Sports After Sustaining a Spinal Cord Injury
Mackenzie “Mack” Johnson, 20, learns importance of moving forward at Shepherd Center.
Mackenzie “Mack” Johnson, 20, laughs now when he remembers it. When he first transferred from University of Tennessee Medical Center to Shepherd Center – a few weeks after sustaining an incomplete T-12 spinal cord injury in a 35-foot fall from a cabin balcony on November 5, 2016 – the first task physical therapists gave him was to put on his own shorts.
“They didn’t give me much assistance, either,” Mack says. “They’d just come by every few minutes and say, ‘Hey, your shorts still aren’t on.’ I remember thinking, ‘This is the place that’s supposed to be so great? Don’t they know I’m paralyzed?’”
“But they knew what they were doing and they knew what I was capable of,” he adds. “That’s what I grew to love about Shepherd Center. They prepare you. They challenge you. They support you, but they don’t pity you.”
Another challenge he received at Shepherd Center was to try some new sports. A former high school football player, Mack had never played basketball competitively. But during his six-month stay at Shepherd Center, he started falling for the game, enamored with its competitiveness, physicality and camaraderie. He began practicing with the Shepherd Stealers basketball team, and when he left, the coaches gave him information on a summer hoops camp at Auburn University.
Today, Mack, an accounting major, is a member of Auburn’s wheelchair basketball team, where he attends thanks to a scholarship from the Swim With Mike Foundation. Mack has also struck up an unlikely friendship with NBA legend Bill Walton. A chance encounter at a Dateland sandwich shop in Arizona turned into an ongoing bond between the two athletes. Thanks to Walton’s encouragement, Mack has spread his sporting focus to cycling and swimming, too, and has become active with the Challenged Athletes Foundation. At Walton’s invitation, Mack even participated in the Million Dollar Challenge – handcycling with Walton’s team down portions of the 620-mile route along the California coastline.
Mack still visits patients and staff at Shepherd Center whenever he passes through Atlanta, too.
“This is where I learned the importance of going forward and staying active,” Mack says. “Now, I’m the one telling new patients to try doing more than they think they’re ready to!”
Written by Phillip Jordan
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 743 inpatients, 277 day program patients and more than 7,161 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.