From Near and Far
Former Shepherd Center patients from across the nation report on their productive lives post-injury.
CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA
Within a three-year span, Michael “Mike” Arneson, 19, of Chapel Hill, N.C., sustained a brain injury in a bicycle accident, was diagnosed with cancer and saw his family’s home burn down when struck by lightning.
“In my family, we like to say we follow the rule of threes, so we’ve completed our trio now,” Mike says. He laughs as he says it and is thankful he can. After his bicycling accident, it took nearly a month before the fog in his mind began dissipating. “My mom described it as ‘The lights were on, but nobody was home,’” Mike recalls.
Nearly two months at Shepherd Center and a stint at Shepherd Pathways helped him recapture his strength and start to regain the use of his hands. “Just walking out of Shepherd Center was a huge accomplishment for me then,” Mike says.
Two years later, as he continued to improve, a small bump on his neck was diagnosed as Stage II-A Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Six rounds of chemotherapy later, Mike emerged cancer-free and has remained so since.
Those two experiences would put last year’s loss of his family’s home in perspective. “It was tough, especially for my mom, to lose pictures and childhood memorabilia,” he says. “But we know there are worse things.”
The house has been rebuilt, but Mike will soon be on the move again — this time to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This past spring, as he looked forward to college, Mike shared some advice through his high school valedictorian speech.
“Don’t regret the past,” he says. “Sometimes at Shepherd Center, I’d start thinking ‘What if? What if I hadn’t gone biking that day?’ But that doesn’t help anything. Whining or wondering about choices in the past only prevents you from doing what you need to do in the present.”
Josh Lam, 28, of McGayesville, Va., lives on a family farm nestled in the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains. From his doorstep, he can see the homes of his grandmother, uncle, cousin and parents. Close by is the pond where Josh and his wife Cassie were married two years ago.
It’s a scene he doesn’t take for granted since his injury in September 2010. “All the family support around me helped get me through,” he says.
Josh sustained a C-4 to C-5 incomplete spinal cord injury in a nighttime automobile accident in which he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. When he came to, he was trapped in his wrecked truck, listening to fuel gurgle out of the punctured gas tank and watching head beams become taillights as cars sped by. “It felt so strange. I don’t know if it was the adrenaline, but I’d broken my neck and I never really felt much pain,” he recalls.
When Josh arrived at Shepherd Center three weeks later, he couldn’t move his legs, fingers or hands. Nine weeks there, followed later by two weeks in Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Day Program, brought Josh’s fingers back to life and movement back to his knees and ankles.
“You’ve really gotta put your time in down there,” he recalls. “They work you, but it’s such a great place. I was very lucky to go there.”
Today, Josh gets around most places with only a cane. He doesn’t bale hay anymore, but he’s constructing a new chicken house and can operate most of the farm’s machinery. He’s also gotten a new side job in town at a car dealership.
“I’m a simple, laid-back guy,” Josh says. “Being here with my wife, my family. That’s what meant the most to me.”
STONE MOUNTAIN, GEORGIA
Matt Lee, 22, of Stone Mountain, Ga., has about a half-dozen teachers in his family. “I think it’s just in my blood,” he says. “As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to teach.”
When Matt sustained a brain injury in January 2009, it appeared his lifelong plans might be in jeopardy. He had hydroplaned in his car on a foggy night, and Matt wound up in an intensive care unit for a week. His longer-term challenge would be reclaiming his short-term memory.
At Shepherd Center, Matt would forget instructions he’d received only a few minutes before. He couldn’t remember his room number.
“A lot of that period is gone from my memory,” Matt says. “But as time goes on, I do remember music and speech therapy sessions, and how nice and helpful everyone was. I’ve gone back to visit with therapists since I’ve recovered, and it’s been so good to actually have full conversations with them!”
He went on to spend five months at Shepherd Pathways. Halfway through his time in the program, Matt started walking and soon began light running. His balance and coordination improved. Eventually, his memory and attention span improved, as well.
Since then, Matt has earned a degree in religion at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. This fall, he started classes at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Matt’s focus is on Old Testament studies, as well as ancient languages and civilizations. After attaining his master’s degree, his next goal will be to get a doctorate.
“I’d actually started as a music major at Samford,” Matt says, “but I realized pretty quickly that I enjoy music more as a hobby. I’ve always had this interest in religious studies and languages, so I made the switch. This is what I want to teach.”
For the first time in more than a year, Meg Throckmorton, 18, of Waynesburg, Penn., practiced ballet this past summer. “I’m taking it slow, just stretching and exercises on the balls of my feet,” she says. “Even if I can’t dance like I did before, it’s so great to be part of it again.”
“Before” is the time leading up to April 13, 2012, when Meg sustained an incomplete C-1 to C-2 spinal cord injury while practicing for a dance competition. The injury left her in a neck halo for six weeks, and she relied on a ventilator when she came to Shepherd Center. But Meg became one of the youngest people to be approved for a Diaphragmatic Pacing System (DPS), which stimulated her diaphragm a dozen times a minute to assist her breathing.
“It felt like a bee was stinging me!” Meg says. “But I got more comfortable with it, and that helped get me breathing again on my own.”
She and a fellow patient named Montana challenged each other to a vent-weaning competition. “And I beat him by a few days!” Meg says with a laugh. “We were doing it at the same time, so we had fun with it. Really, it was just good to have someone to talk with about it.”
She returned to Shepherd Center this spring to take part in the Beyond Therapy® program and credits it for getting her to the point she’s reached now — able to dance, swim and go out with her friends.
“Shepherd was such a different experience from the first day I was there,” Meg recalls. “They didn’t let me wallow. They got me going right away. Every single nurse, every single therapist was so amazing. I remember telling my mom, ‘Thank you for bringing me here.’ It’s exactly what I needed.”
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 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.