Leading by Example
David Smith is motivating others solely by being himself.
David Smith is a self-proclaimed goofball. He loves having fun with his 14-year-old son and takes pleasure in the simple things — taking a drive, listening to music, or playing video games. He’s quick to smile or laugh but also has a deep sense of determination.
On January 15, 2021, David started his workday before dawn. He was driving an 18-wheeler on his delivery route. As he pulled through an intersection, another driver ran a red light. David swerved to avoid the vehicle, but it hit the end of his tractor-trailer, which flipped onto its side. David sustained a C-6 spinal cord injury and was airlifted to Greenville Memorial Hospital in Greenville, South Carolina, where he would spend close to a month before transferring to Shepherd Center.
“I don't remember the stay at Greenville Memorial. I remember leaving, but that whole month was a blur,” he says.
Once at Shepherd Center, David was ready to work hard to get stronger.
“I was trying to do everything in therapy, even the stuff they said I might want to wait and try later. I said, ‘Let's just see, and if I fail, then we'll go from there,’” he recalls.
Though there were many tough days physically and emotionally, he didn’t lose his sense of self.
“Once I saw that the wreck didn't damage my brain and mess with my personality, I vowed to be myself throughout. I'm still going to laugh, I'm still going to smile, and I'm still going to be a caring person,” he explains.
For the first few months at Shepherd, David focused on strengthening his upper body. Eventually, he was able to switch from an electric to a manual wheelchair.
“When I started using the manual wheelchair, I wanted to give up. I'm not going to lie to you. I thought, ‘I'm not going to be able to do this. I'm not strong enough.’”
But David’s successes began to add up — that, coupled with the support of Shepherd staff, fueled his drive to accomplish even more.
“The staff there was just incredibly caring. Don't get me wrong, it was excruciatingly hard, but the way they pushed you, either you allowed them to help you, or you didn't. And I was willing to let them be there for me.”
Then, he regained some movement in his toe. “I stayed up all night moving that toe,” he jokes.
As David grew stronger, he began to cheer other patients on and was dubbed the fifth-floor mayor, greeting everyone in the gym and helping them feel motivated.
“I’d try to pick people up and give off that same energy that the staff was giving, and it made my stay that much better,” he recalls.
By the time he went home in July 2021, David could stand up and take steps using a walker. Now, he’s back at work part-time and hoping to return full-time soon.
In September, David was awarded the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Education Association’s Inspirational Award for his courage and determination. He’s happy to think he can give others hope.
“That’s why I carry myself the way I do — because you never know who's going to be looking up to you and saying, ‘If they can do it, maybe I can too.’ And I do it for my son, too. I want to show him not to give up and to inspire him to be better for himself.”
Written by Ruth Underwood
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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 neurological 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 740 inpatients, nearly 280 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.