Just a Typical 18-Year-Old Boy
Through teamwork, dedication and a whole lot of creative thinking, Shepherd Center therapists help Jefferey Cox get back to gaming.
Jefferey Cox arrived at Shepherd Center on September 17, 2018, a scared 18-year-old high school senior from Erin, Tennessee, paralyzed from the neck down.
He’d sustained a C-1 to -2 fracture during a football scrimmage game. The play was routine. The consequences were life-altering.
“I was playing cornerback, I went to make a tackle, hit the kid and everything went black,” Jefferey says. “I thought maybe I had a concussion, like I had in eighth grade. That’s all I remember.”
Coaches initially thought Jefferey merely had the wind knocked out of him. Unable to speak, he then mouthed to an assistant, “Coach, I’m scared.”
As the assistant recalled later, “Jefferey was dying.”
A trainer worked on him while someone else called for an ambulance. Jefferey spent more than a month at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville before transferring to Shepherd Center.
“We were all scared,” says Alicia Parker, Jefferey’s mother. “We thought this is just crazy. Life’s over. But then you get to Shepherd, and it’s a whole different ballgame.”
Jefferey remembers Shepherd Center’s interdisciplinary staff – doctors, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, recreation therapists, nurses and others – springing into action. Within a week, he began to move his head a bit, then started learning to drive his wheelchair without a head rest.
“They don’t take it easy on you,” Jefferey says of the Shepherd staff. “They know your expectations. They push you to be stronger and stronger.
“After a while,” he adds, “they basically became family. They don’t treat you any different than people treated you before your accident.”
As he gained independence one small victory at a time, the scared kid returned to being the “very determined” teenager his mother says he’d always been. As they do with all patients, the Shepherd staff involved him in setting weekly rehabilitation goals.
“That was important,” Alicia says. “While he doesn’t have function below his neck, his mind is 100 percent. To be included in those decisions was a big thing. It gave him back a little of his independence.”
One of Jefferey’s goals was to play video games again, especially Madden NFL. Because Jefferey uses a ventilator to breathe and has limited movement in his hands, the therapy team got to work pooling ideas and resources to make that happen.
“We knew our work was cut out for us,” says Shanna Thorpe, CTRS, a recreational therapist. “I worked vigorously with occupational therapist Katie Kimball to get his setup perfect. After many, many attempts and failures, we were finally comfortable with him ordering his own equipment.”
Kimball worked with Modular Hose, a company that creates hose systems commonly used in assistive technology applications to position a switch, tablet or lightweight communication device, to create a custom mounts for Jefferey.
“Modular Hose was amazing to work with,” Kimball says. “We went back and forth on the phone and through email to customize a set of mounts for Jefferey that were ideal for his gaming needs. Once they were received, Jefferey and I sent them some photos and videos of him in action and they couldn’t have been happier to be part of the process.”
Adina Bradshaw, MS, CCC-SLP, ATP, a speech pathologist and assistive technology specialist, also helped with Jefferey’s sip-and-puff switch, which is used to send signals to a device using air pressure by inhaling or exhaling on a straw or tube. Without that piece, Jefferey wouldn’t have had as much independence playing.
The collaboration paid off. Using an adaptive controller he operates with his straw, tongue and jaw, Jefferey started playing with his mother. His ultra-competitive nature soon emerged, and he played against other patients. When he finally lost a game, he half-joked to Alicia of his opponent: “He’s got hands and I don’t. That doesn’t count.”
“It was really cool to see him and his mom be able to play Madden NFL against each other when Jefferey was an inpatient,” Thorpe recalls. “Once Jefferey discharged, he was holding weekly game nights and tournaments at his house with his own Xbox setup. He got his competitive spirits back and had a sense of normality again. He even left Shepherd Center undefeated against other patients.”
Through therapy, outings and yes – Madden NFL – Jefferey became close to other patients in the Adolescent Rehabilitation Program, which focuses on the more than 100 spinal cord and brain injury patients, ages 12 to 21, admitted to Shepherd Center each year. Treatment team members provide age-appropriate therapy and expertise, while also addressing the age group’s specific needs for autonomy, privacy and control.
Jefferey became the group’s “mayor,” an unofficial leadership position passed down from patient to patient. He kept up with his schoolwork by meeting with Shepherd’s academic coordinator several days a week.
Patients went together on outings to restaurants and stores, where they practiced skills out in the community that they’d learned inside Shepherd Center. They bonded over shared experiences.
“It gives you a perspective that it’s not just you by yourself,” Jefferey says
Jefferey went home from Shepherd on January 9, 2019. He returned to school and graduated on time with his high school class. He was also honored at the Tennessean Sports Awards with the 2019 Kaia Jergenson Courage Award.
Jefferey returned to Shepherd Center in June 2019 to model in Project Rollway, the annual fashion show and fundraiser for the Adolescent Rehabilitation Program. He also received a $2,500 scholarship from Ramp Less Traveled, a nonprofit (founded by former Shepherd patient Jay Ruckelshaus) dedicated to helping students with spinal cord injuries go to college.
Jefferey talked with current patients while he visited Shepherd Center to provide peer support to those who currently in rehabilitation. He says he’s paying forward the support that former Shepherd patients once gave him.
“I tell them it’s hard at first, but once you find your way, it’s a lot easier,” he says.
With the aid of a note taker and nurse, Jefferey now attends Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, and is majoring in criminal justice. He wants to be a lawyer, just as he planned before his injury.
On weekends, he hosts Xbox nights with friends. He’s still winning.
“He’s a typical 18-year-old boy,” Alicia says. “Shepherd gave him his independence back and hope for the future.”
Written by Drew Jubera
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.