“I Can’t” to “I Can”
Former Shepherd Center patients share how they reached their goals after injury or illness, turning moments where they felt like they couldn’t into opportunities full of possibilities.
Shepherd Center is the bridge from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can.’
Since Shepherd Center’s founding in 1975, thousands of patients have entered and left its halls, and each has their own unique story. Read on to meet 10 Shepherd graduates whose powerful stories show how hope and hard work can lead to great things. Click on the individual name to scroll directly to that person.
I can’t walk, but I can waltz.
One in five is not bad odds unless, of course, you are the one. Unfortunately, for Vincenzo Piscopo, he was. Vincenzo became paralyzed from the waist down after surgery for a ruptured herniated disk, and part of the 20% of patients who become paralyzed from this type of surgery. Still, it did not leave him without hope.
After the surgery, Vincenzo transferred to Shepherd, where he spent three months in the Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program. The work was hard, but those who know Vincenzo know that he never shies away from hard work. Active in Shepherd’s one-of-a-kind recreational therapy programs, Vincenzo relearned skills that fuel meaningful life moments.
“They taught me how I could play baseball with my son. They taught me how I could dance with my wife,” Vincenzo says.
With guidance from his team at Shepherd, Vincenzo had been given a second lease on life and was going to make the most of every moment.
When Vincenzo graduated from Shepherd, he did not just return to work. He got to work. With the support of his wife, Gabriela, he founded Wheels of Happiness, a nonprofit that provides medical supplies and equipment, offers scholarships, and funds surgeries. As the organization grew, so did Vincenzo’s opportunity for impact. After more than 24 years with The Coca-Cola Company, Vincenzo became the president and CEO of the United Spinal Association and even joined Shepherd’s Board of Directors.
“You don’t have to measure your happiness based on how everybody measures their happiness. Happiness is that I can do things that make me happy, which may be different from friends who can walk,” he says.
Between his full-time job and full-time passion project, Vincenzo is living a full life.
Hear directly from Vincenzo about his journey here.
I can’t walk on my own two feet, but I can run on my new ones.
Flesh-eating bacteria. It sounds like a plot point in a medical drama or the self-diagnosis we stumble upon online. But for Cindy Martinez, a U.S. Marine veteran, it was real life. What started as a dull ache in her back morphed into a burning fever and life-threatening condition in a matter of days. After several months of organ failure and amputations, Cindy thought she was out of options.
“I was bedridden, I had a feeding tube, I couldn’t even roll to my side,” Cindy recalls.
When she arrived at Shepherd Center, Cindy found what she needed: hope.
When she arrived, Cindy was lying on a gurney, but a mere seven weeks later, she left walking on her feet – her two new prosthetic feet. The experience was transformational, but make no mistake, it did not come easy. It was Cindy’s strength, resilience, and hard work, plus the tailored programming and daily support of her medical team and family, that literally got her back on her feet.
When Cindy graduated from Shepherd, she did not just survive – she thrived. Now, Cindy does CrossFit training five days a week and is a recreational runner able to run an entire half-marathon on her own. She never forgot how the local Marine Corps Leagues supported her during her recovery, and she now gives back by raising funds to provide for the next generation.
Hear directly from Cindy about her journey here.
I can’t move like I used to, but I can lead a movement.
“Everyone knew me as the fitness instructor.”
Tina Davis had recently celebrated her 50th birthday by running six half-marathons. She was in the best shape of her life. Then one February morning, Tina’s story took a dramatic turn.
She was shot seven times in a horrific domestic violence attack. One of the bullets shattered two of her vertebrae, and the avid runner awoke with no feeling below the waist. She was absolutely devastated because fitness was who she was. To Tina, the attack took her life and her identity, but with the support of Shepherd Center, she reinvented herself.
At Shepherd, Tina’s treatment team didn’t balk at her goals to squat, lunge, walk, and run. Pouring her energy into therapy her medical team set out for her gave her hope. After six weeks of inpatient care, four weeks in the Spinal Cord Injury Day Program, and more than nine months of rigorous training in Beyond Therapy®, she went from no movement below the waist to walking with forearm crutches and teaching spin classes to other Shepherd patients.
Now, Tina runs her own nonprofit and uses her love of running to help others, raising money for domestic violence crisis centers through her annual Tina’s Cat Run road race. She’s humble about this work and sees it turning a negative into a positive. Though she’s come far, Tina has big goals she’s working toward – like completing 12 half-marathons in one year. She plans to continue in Beyond Therapy® at Shepherd until she can do just that.
Hear directly from Tina about her journey here.
I can’t control the disease, but I can stop it from controlling me.
Multiple sclerosis may be an “invisible disease,” but its impact on Ashley Payne’s life was impossible to overlook. A veterinarian, outdoor enthusiast, and classic Type A personality, Ashley went from go-go-go to a screeching halt after a neurological attack in 2016 left her unable to walk or even crawl. It was a trying season of life, but not one she had to face alone.
At Shepherd Center, her team challenged the ever-moving Ashley with an uncomfortable truth: She needed to slow down to keep going. It was not easy, but tough love rarely is. Thankfully, Ashley did slow down, taking time off work and focusing on rehabilitation. The results did not come overnight, but Ashley’s team had prepared her for the fight.
“Dr. Thrower convinced me of the right treatment option, and that probably saved my life,” Ashley says.
Thanks to that comprehensive plan, Ashley was back on the hiking trails just one year after her flare-up.
Several years since that terrible attack, Ashley still carries the truths she learned at Shepherd with her daily.
“If you make enough 1% improvements, over time, you’ll get somewhere,” she says.
I can’t change what happened, but I can decide what happens next.
“I heard a big thud, so I ran upstairs. Dad was on the floor.”
Roger Brathwaite was having a stroke when his 16-year-old son found him – the first and far more damaging of the two he would ultimately have – but Roger does not remember it. And he barely remembers being unable to move the right side of his body or recognize his four boys and family.
What he does remember is arriving at Shepherd Center and leaving three and a half months later – not in a wheelchair, but on his feet.
Recreation therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, music therapy, and physical therapy – Roger did it all, but he did not do it alone. Through every victory and every setback, he had the support of his family and his treatment team.
Behind that determination was a desire to be active in society again, a strong desire to contribute and return to a corporate job, to provide for his four boys, and be the father he knew they needed. It was that same determination that drove him even after he graduated from Shepherd.
Roger went on to finish pursuing a Master’s of Business Administration from the University of Georgia while starting a support group for young men and women who have survived a stroke, who, like him, wanted to “thrive” and not just “survive.
The example Roger sets and the care he received at Shepherd even inspired his youngest son to study medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine.
Roger has come so far since his strokes – his whole family has. While the therapy he received at Shepherd was critical to his progress, it was the renewed life lessons that really impacted his life.
As Roger puts it, “You’ve gotta love the life you live, to live the life you love.”
Hear directly from Roger about his journey here.
I can’t run now, but I can run again.
“He will have no meaningful recovery, so if you want to withdraw services, we can do that.”
Those were the devastating words Cole Burton’s parents heard after an impaired driver swerved off the road and into Cole.
Faced with seemingly impossible odds, Cole’s family took their son to Shepherd Center. From the convenience of on-site family housing to access to the country’s leading recreation therapy program, Shepherd was ready to support Cole and his parents throughout their journey.
After eight grueling weeks – both for the patient and his family – Cole was literally back on his feet. It was not easy, but with his hard work, the dedication of his clinical team, and the support of his family, Cole did what others said could not be done.
Looking back, the Burton family is certain their story would have had a different ending if Cole had gone somewhere other than Shepherd due to a lack of available space.
Cole acknowledges, “We beat the odds just by being at Shepherd Center,” and he continues to beat those odds every day.
Just 13 months after his accident, Cole completed The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta. Just a year later, Cole was back at Auburn University, working toward graduation and moving on to a Master’s of Exercise Science with a special focus on something that helped him tremendously during his time at Shepherd: physical therapy.
Hear directly from Cole about his journey here.
I can’t move quickly, but I can move others to action.
“Will life ever go back to normal?”
It is one of the first questions patients and families ask after a catastrophic injury. For some, this answer is “yes,” but not for most. So, how do you move on when you know you might never move again?
You stop thinking about what you can’t do and start focusing on what you can.
Making this shift is never easy, but for Kimiko Cheeley, it was easier than most. She had witnessed the power of perspective at a young age by watching her parents, both of whom are legally blind and living fulfilling lives despite their challenges. When a 500-pound tractor tire fell on Kimiko, it engulfed her and cut off oxygen to her brain. The resulting brain injury initially felt insurmountable. Even after spending eight days in a coma, inspired by her parents' example, Kimiko would not give up.
After two weeks at a local hospital, Kimiko’s family transferred her to Shepherd Center, where the work of rehabilitation began. At Shepherd, she had doctors, physical therapists, and counselors working with her, challenging her, and cheering her on. It was difficult and, at times, discouraging, but Kimiko never once gave up.
Four months after her accident, Kimiko was back at work. She will be the first to admit that she was not 100% when she initially returned, but she persisted. With a fresh perspective, she advocated for accessibility, adapting her workspace to work for her and others.
Now, Kimiko works full-time again as a palliative care coordinator and volunteers as her hospital’s Trauma Survivor Network coordinator. She is also a professor in psychology, even obtaining her marriage and family therapist license post-injury.
When asked about her recovery, Kimiko says, “My parents always taught us never to let anything hinder you.”
Hear directly from Kimiko about her journey here.
I can’t stand up, but I won’t be held down.
“I can’t move” – the three words 17-year-old Jefferey Cox mouthed to his assistant football coach. Jefferey had tackled the running back, but he was the one still on the ground.
A month in an acute care hospital stabilized Jefferey’s condition, readying him for the next phase in his treatment. But it was his family’s persistence that led to his transfer to Shepherd, where rehabilitation teams helped him turn “I Can’t” into “I Can.”
Like many patients with spinal cord injuries, Jefferey quickly learned to use a sip-and-puff-controlled wheelchair. How he used that ability, though, was anything but ordinary. With the help of Shepherd’s adolescent treatment and assistive technology teams, Jefferey was able to get back on the field – virtually, that is. Shepherd innovation specialists turned his everyday sip-and-puff interface into a modified gaming console. And the first game he played? Madden Football.
Never one to stay on the sidelines, Jefferey’s pastime helped him reconnect with his passion. Less than a year after his accident, Jefferey graduated from Shepherd and enrolled in college. And now, he plans to go for two – two degrees, that is. After getting his bachelor’s degree, Jefferey will chase down his next goal: law school.
Hear directly from Jefferey about his journey here.
I can’t forget the pain, but I can put it to good use.
You can’t tell just by looking at a person that they have a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but the scars these traumas leave run deep. An Army medic who served 10 years in the military, Staff Sergeant Jarrad Turner was injured in an attack during his second tour of duty in Iraq. After persevering through four shoulder surgeries, two jaw and elbow surgeries, and having shrapnel removed from his head, he tried to convince himself that everything was fine. After all, the “invisible” brain injuries were just all in his head, right?
That all changed when Jarrad came to the SHARE Military Initiative at Shepherd Center. There, he found a dedicated team with deep experience in helping veterans with brain injuries and post-traumatic stress heal from the inside out. They educated Jarrad about his injuries and provided continuous encouragement through his rehabilitation process while offering his family the support and resources they needed to move forward together.
“I felt like I was weak, but in hindsight, I was actually stronger for going to SHARE,” Jarrad reflects.
Getting the help he deserved empowered Jarrad to be able to help others. He now serves his fellow service members in new but equally vital ways – as a member of Shepherd’s Men, comprised of active or retired service members and civilian volunteers who raise awareness and funds for SHARE, as well as by serving on Shepherd’s Board of Directors. Thanks to his enduring grit, selfless spirit, and the life-changing care he received from Shepherd’s SHARE team, Jarrad embodies the mantra, “Once an Army Medic, Always an Army Medic.”
Hear directly from Jarrad about his journey here.
Hammad Aslam, M.D.
I can’t walk ever again, but I can help others get back on their feet.
While Hammad Aslam, M.D., planned to attend medical school, he never planned on becoming a physiatrist. He also never planned on needing one. On the way home from visiting a medical school, Hammad and his family were in a car accident. Thankfully, everyone was okay – everyone, that is, except for Hammad. After the accident, he was paralyzed from the chest down and in a coma for more than two weeks. This incident would change Hammad’s life forever and lead him to receive rehabilitative care at Shepherd Center.
From the Recreation Therapy Program to the Assistive Technology Center, Shepherd offers a lot to patients like Hammad. Career guidance, though, is not usually top of the list. However, the more time Hammad spent with his doctors – the physiatrists – the more he saw a future for himself.
“I had no idea what the field was then, but I loved how they formed relationships with their patients,” Hammad says. “The wheels definitely started turning in my head.”
When the time came for him to select a specialty, the choice was obvious – he wanted to help restore people’s lives like Shepherd’s team helped restore his.
Now, more than a decade after the accident, treating patients with pain and limited function has changed a lot. New equipment, therapies, best practices, and innovations lead to even better outcomes. As a recent medical school graduate and now a physiatrist specializing in physical and sports injury medicine, Hammad knows that even more is possible – it is just a matter of who will invest in it.
“I’ve learned there’s always a way to get things done,” he says.
Hammad finds immense joy in maximizing the quality of life for his patients, as his physicians at Shepherd once did for him.
Hear directly from Hammad about his journey here.
No matter how many “I can” moments Shepherd Center makes possible for patients, there will always be more we need to create. Visit our website to learn about our Pursuing Possible campaign and how your generous support will help us impact more lives and further advance the field of neurorehabilitation.
Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.