12:42 PM

Injury Prevention Mission

Shepherd Center staff and patients spread the word about risky behavior, hoping to prevent brain and spinal cord injuries.

The classroom chatter dies down quickly when Cole Sydnor arrives to talk to school groups in Mechanicsville, Va.

Cole, a 17-year-old former Shepherd Center patient, knows the students are looking at his wheelchair. But he starts by talking about life before his accident – the schools he attended and his many hours of competitive swimming and other sports.

Cole Sydnor, 17, of Mechanicsville, Va., sustained a complete C-5 to -6 spinal cord injury when he dove into the James River in Richmond in 2011.

“A lot of them went to the same schools I went to, had the same teachers, the same coaches,” Cole says. “It shows them this (injury) is not a random thing. It happens more than they expect.”

Then he tells them how a guy a lot like them broke his neck diving into the James River on Aug. 11, 2011 – an accident that landed him in the ICU at VCU Medical Center.

“That’s the quietest they’ve ever been,” one group leader told Cole after an appearance. But the respectful students do have questions. For example: What’s the hardest part of life with paralysis?

“The hard part is the dependence,” Cole tells them. “For example, when you go to get a drink that you used to just grab yourself, you have to ask someone for help.”

Patients and former patients, such as Cole, often share their stories in group settings, hoping to have an impact, especially on adolescents. Many of the appearances are coordinated through Shepherd’s injury prevention program, which also uses social media and word of mouth to raise awareness of spinal cord and brain injuries.

And this year, Shepherd Center and the Cobb County School District in suburban Atlanta will expand a program in which Shepherd professionals and several former patients join specially trained science teachers in presenting a two-and-a-half week injury prevention unit to seventh graders.

Campbell Middle School in metro Atlanta was the first school to implement Shepherd Center’s injury prevention curriculum in 2011 and 2012.

“I was surprised at how well the kids and the patients interacted,” says Thomas Brown, Ph.D., the science curriculum director for Cobb County schools. “The kids seemed to let their guard down, and the patients seemed to be able to be open and frank with them. It was very useful to get to the point that, ‘Hey, you need to be careful and think about what you’re doing. And if you don’t, here’s what can happen.’”

This spring, the program will include Campbell and three additional middle schools: Dodgen, Dickerson and McClure.

The program includes instruction on spine and brain anatomy, medical rehabilitation careers and prevention of injuries caused by distracted driving, diving, unsafe operation of bicycles or all-terrain vehicles, and guns and violence.

Tests of students before and after these lessons in science classes have shown students’ attitudes toward risky behavior changed for the better, says Bridget Metzger, Shepherd Center’s director of injury prevention.

Shepherd Center staff members and former patients speak to students at Campbell Middle School in metro Atlanta about injury prevention in May 2012.

This year, educators also will assess whether the students intend to advocate safer behavior by others.

“If they see Mom texting and driving,” Metzger says, “how likely are they to say: ‘You can’t do that. That’s not safe.’? Or will they speak up if one of their peers is not wearing a seat belt?”

Brown would like to see some students join with patients to find better ways to teach injury prevention.

In the case of distracted driving, he says: “This problem is likely, in the short term, to get worse because kids are so married to their cell phones. Kids are better at technology than we are, so we need them to help find solutions.”

Brown also thinks the program may teach students something intangible.

“We can use this project to help our kids realize that there are lots of people who are struggling in one way or another who need help and encouragement,” he adds.

Like former patients participating in Shepherd’s middle school program in metro Atlanta, Cole shares his story in his own community, hoping to evoke empathy – an important factor in making an impact on the audience.

While remaining dedicated to injury prevention, Cole is moving ahead with his life. He will graduate from high school this spring and plans to attend the University of Richmond – with the assistance of a caregiver. He goes out with friends, who are happy to help “bump” him up stairs in his powerassisted wheelchair or grab a soda for him.

Asking friends for help can make Cole feel like “a nuisance” sometimes, but he considers how he would feel if the situation were reversed. “It would make me feel good to do that for my friend,” he says.

And he sees his story helping others. One mother reported an emotional warning she gave to her son to stop diving after hearing the details of Cole’s accident at a community prayer service.

“The next time he went out to the river, he went to the same spot, but the tide had gone out, and the water was more shallow than he expected,” Cole says. When the mother received a call that her son had been injured at the river, she feared the worst. But he had broken his tibia, not his spine, because he jumped in feet first.

The boy told his mother, “I thought about Cole, and I didn’t dive.”

Jake Berryhill’s Story

In a way, Jake Berryhill is glad so many of his friends saw him lying in a hospital bed with a spinal cord injury and a battered face. More than any public service announcement could accomplish, he believes the message really hit home when his friends witnessed what could happen when texting while driving.

“That was a pretty frightening thing for them,” says Jake, 26, of Athens, Ga. “I’ve had a lot of them tell me after seeing me like that they just won’t do it.”

He has a message for newer friends. “People will say, ‘Yeah, I look at my phone all the time, and it’s terrible.’ And I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, don’t.’”

And then he tells them his story.

Jake Berryhill, 26, of Athens, Ga., sustained an incomplete C-6 to-7 spinal cord injury in May 2011 when he wrecked because he was texting while driving.

On May 17, 2011, Jake left his parents’ lake house in north Georgia and started back toward Athens. He had fallen into the habit of waiting 10 minutes or so before buckling his seat belt. He was about five minutes into his drive and texting when his car swerved a little bit off the road.

Jake over-corrected and sent the car into a spin. Ultimately, the car crashed into a tree. Jake wound up in the floorboard with a gashed nose and chin, two missing teeth and an injury at the base of his neck that put paralyzing pressure on his spinal cord at the C-6 to -7 level.

After back surgery and a week of intensive care at Atlanta Medical Center, Jake was transferred to Shepherd Center for rehabilitation. He spent four weeks as an inpatient, graduating from bed to wheelchair to walking with a cane. He moved to the Day Program for three more weeks and then went home to Athens to continue his recovery.

“If you saw me today, you’d have no idea that this had ever happened,” Jake says. He returned to work as a business analyst for a software company.

When he drives, his seat belt gets buckled immediately, and his phone goes in the cup holder. “When the car’s in motion, I won’t pick it up.”

He thinks a lot about why people make the mistake he did.

“You get in the car every single day, and so it’s not really a registered thought that you are taking a risk every time you get behind the wheel,” Jake says. “All of us want to think we have the ability to multi-task,” he says. “But something bad could really happen just because you took your eye off the road for a couple of seconds.”

Ali Monckeberg’s Story

When former nursing student Ali Monckeberg, 24, told spinal cord injury patients at Shepherd Center she understood their challenges, she meant it.

At an outing with friends at Myrtle Beach, S.C., on May 24, 2009, Ali went head first over a homemade water slide into the Atlantic Ocean. She slammed into hard sand beneath the shallow water, causing a C-1 spinal cord contusion in her neck. After surgery and acute care at New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, N.C., she transferred to Shepherd Center, unable to move anything below her neck except her right wrist.

But over the next two months, she rapidly progressed in Shepherd’s inpatient treatment regimen and then in the day program. After follow-up at home in Cumming, Ga., she regained almost full mobility. By summer 2011, she was back at Shepherd as a nursing extern working with the same team of professionals who had treated her.

“It was really cool to be able to talk to the patients and say, ‘I know what you’re going through,’” Ali says.

Ali Monckeberg, 24, of Cumming, Ga., sustained a C-1 spinal cord contusion in May 2009 after sliding down a homemade water slide into shallow water at Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Her experience can make it difficult for her when she’s with friends who dive into water. “At the pool or in the lake, whenever people start diving in, I just have to look the other way,” she says. ”It’s just hard for people to understand the risk.”

Ali, who describes herself as 90 percent recovered, says she sometimes has a noticeable limp.

“People will say, ‘What’s wrong with your leg?’ Then I explain I had a spinal cord injury, and they don’t understand how a spinal cord injury is interconnected with other issues with your body,” Ali says. “I think people are undereducated about what exactly can happen.”

Ali has friends who tell her it’s safe to dive in some circumstances, and she agrees that it’s better to look into the depth of the water than take no precautions. But she is proof that it’s hard to truly assess the risks.

Her friends had been sliding across a tarp on a sand pile for quite a while before she got up her courage to try it. “I had seen people doing the same exact thing minutes before I did it,” she recalls.

Ali earned her nursing degree from Lynchburg College in 2012. As she embarks on a health care career, she wants people to understand that injuries that seem a remote possibility happen all too often.

“I talked to so many Shepherd Center patients who had gone through accidents that were completely freak accidents,” Ali says. “No one thinks about such little things that can change your life.”

Lino Ortiz’s Story

Lino Ortiz got back on the all-terrain vehicle against his better judgment.

He thought about the two beers he drank at the Fourth of July cookout and how he felt on a friend’s ATV a little earlier that night. That first time, he recalls: “I drove around and parked it. I said, ‘I’m not going to ride it. It doesn’t feel safe.’”

But his friend’s father was late returning from an ATV ride, and she asked Lino to take another ATV and go down a dirt road to look for him. He drove off without a helmet.

Rescuers found Lino in the early morning hours of July 5, 2009, “upside down, bleeding from the nose and the ears.” He doesn’t remember the accident that injured his brain – or any of the next four weeks, including his acute care stay at The Medical Center in Columbus, Ga.

“I remember waking up at Shepherd Center and the doctor telling me, ‘Your life isn’t going to be the same,’” Lino says.

But in what Lino regards as a miracle, he has recovered almost completely. During a month at Shepherd Center, he graduated from a wheelchair to walking around slowly, strengthened his damaged right arm and shoulder, and worked on the brain issues that disrupted his speech. Surprisingly, he was back at work as a computer network engineer less than three months after the accident.

Lino Ortiz, 34, of Columbus, Ga., sustained a brain injury in an ATV accident in July 2009. He was not wearing a helmet.

Today, Ortiz, 34, of Columbus, Ga., experiences only occasional slight hesitations in his speech, which suggest he was injured. But the experience changed him. He appreciates good times, but also regards risk more seriously, he says. He thinks his daughters, ages 13 and 17, also were changed.

On the rare occasion when he drinks a margarita in a restaurant, his younger daughter worries, even though Lino doesn’t drink and drive. If he receives a text message while driving, he asks one of his daughters to respond.

And while the Consumer Product Safety Commission focuses on driver training and preventing children from driving adult-sized ATVs, Lino is flatly against them.

“I’ve gotten to the point that whenever anyone says to me, ‘My son has an ATV,’ I say ‘Whoa, you should keep it away from him.’ I explain my story and they’re like, ‘Wow.’”

He especially wants teen-agers to hear his message.

“Teens think they’re unstoppable,” Lino says. “They want to have a drink on the weekends when mom and dad are away. They want to text and drive. But I learned I’m stoppable. It was a wake-up call. Some people don’t get as lucky as I was.”

Written By David Simpson
Photography By Gark Meek, Tom Stiles and Louie Favorite

About Shepherd Center

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.