From Near and Far
Samantha Walker, 25, of Snellville, Ga., didn’t hit what she calls “rock bottom” until nearly two years after the car accident that left her with an incomplete C-4 spinal cord injury a week after her 15th birthday. “I became a wild, rebellious teenager after I got my independence back,” Samantha explains. “You’re working through the typical teenager self-image issues, and then add a terrible injury to it.” “At 17, I became pregnant,” she says. Outpatient rehabilitation at Shepherd Center – eight to nine hours a day of “rehab therapy boot camp” as Samantha recalls it – had given the teenager much of her physical independence back a year before. Becoming a mother, Samantha says, “probably saved my life all over again.”
Today, she and her husband, who have been together since she turned 17, cherish two children. Samantha has turned part-time graphic design work into a full-time freelance career, mixing in web design and online marketing for nonprofits and small businesses.
This past Christmas, Samantha connected with friends she had made through a Facebook group of people who sell homemade goods online. She convinced them to donate handmade hats, scarves, wreaths, jewelry, toys and candy for stockings she put together for teens staying at Shepherd Center during the holidays.
“Shepherd gave me my life back, but I still know what it’s like to feel confused and angry as a kid,” Samantha says. “Without going through all that, though, I wouldn’t have my kids, and I wouldn’t have the life I have now.”
Jay Ruckelshaus, 20, of Indianapolis, Ind., says the biggest confidence boost he received post-injury came when he returned to campus at Duke University in fall 2012. “It felt great just to be there,” he says. “It’s really nice to be a student and be treated like anyone else again.”
In July 2011, Jay had broken his fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae in a diving accident. When he arrived at Shepherd Center that September, he could shrug his shoulders. Over the next 11 months, Jay progressed through a variety of Shepherd’s rehabilitation programs. Now, his upper-body strength has returned, and he can move his arms enough to operate an iPad and phone.
In his first semester at Duke, Jay notched a 4.0 GPA and started a mentoring initiative on-campus – pairing students who have successfully returned to campus, post-injury or illness, with students who are still on medical leave. He’s also creating a nonprofit to raise funds and provide scholarships to help students get back to college after a catastrophic injury.
“Family members and friends helped establish a fund for my rehab,” he says. “I want to do the same for others so that they can return to school.”
In the meantime, Jay will return to Shepherd Center for a couple of weeks this summer – for a “tune-up” before traveling to England for a study-abroad program at the University of Oxford. “Navigating a 1,000-year-old castle in a wheelchair for six and a half weeks,” Jay says with a laugh, “should be pretty interesting.”
Joseph G. Leahy
Joseph G. Leahy, 53, of Madison, Ala., a microbiology professor, entered a conference room at the University of Alabama at Huntsville on Feb. 12, 2010, for a faculty meeting. The routine meeting soon turned tragic as a colleague opened fire on her fellow professors, killing three and wounding three others, including Joseph.
A bullet smashed through his skull, severed the optic nerve in his right eye and splintered his jaw. When he was transferred to Shepherd Center for a six-week stay, therapists worked with Joseph extensively on relearning to swallow. He then remastered all the previously simple tasks – walking, showering, shaving and eating – he needed to know before returning home.
Today, Joseph is back teaching in the same biology department at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. There have been more surgeries and lingering vision problems, and Joseph’s organizational skills are still affected. But most importantly, he is in the classroom again, revealing the world of microbiology to his students.
“I lost three colleagues here, including my boss, who I had great respect and admiration for,” Joseph says. “But I wanted to come back. Coming back the next August, it meant everything in the world to me. I love the students, and it was really difficult to be away from that. I’d been teaching for 13 years before the shooting. A return to normality was critical for me.”
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C.
Daren Rodgers, 42, of Myrtle Beach, S.C., is a building contractor. In summer 2011, he was on a 30-foot ladder, propped up against a building he was inspecting for an estimate. A landscape worker was riding on a lawnmower below. “He thought he could fit between the bottom of the ladder and the building,” Daren says. “Well, guess what? He couldn’t.”
His ensuing fall resulted in a C-6 level spinal cord injury. “I had no arm movement at all,” Daren recalls. “I’d lost all muscle mass. I remember looking at my hands and not being able to raise them.” Occupational and physical therapy at Shepherd Center produced results. Today, with the help of his son and creative solutions, such as video software to help him inspect upper-floor units he can’t access in his wheelchair, Daren is back at work.
“What meant the most to me during all the therapy was that the entire time I was there – and this is from one end of the building to the other end – it seemed everyone at Shepherd truly cared about me as an individual,” Daren says.
Before his injury, Daren bought kits that he used to make unique, wooden ink pens. As he recovered after his accident, Daren figured out how he could use a lathe to hold and turn the wooden pieces, pressing them together to form his pens. He’s made more than 100 since the injury, and while he sells many of them, he has sent several as gifts to his therapists and friends at Shepherd.
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.