Learning a New Normal
Austin McGhee pursues his bachelor’s degree in elementary education after sustaining a traumatic brain injury.
If the best teachers are also relentless learners, Austin McGhee has a bright future. After a car crash on Labor Day 2014, Austin was diagnosed with a diffuse axonal injury, a form of traumatic brain injury (TBI). Austin, who was 17 years old at the time, remained minimally conscious for weeks. Now, at 22 years old, Austin graduated with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education in May 2020 with a near-perfect grade point average.
Austin’s road to recovery began at the University of Tennessee Medical Center (UTMC) in Knoxville. After 11 days at UTMC, he arrived at Shepherd Center, entering the Disorders of Consciousness (DOC) Program, a short-term program for patients who are in low-level states of consciousness caused by brain injury.
During his two-and-a-half months in the DOC Program, Austin began showing progress. In addition to learning to walk again, he could follow simple directions; however, he still could not speak or show emotion. Andrew Dennison, M.D., medical director of the acquired brain injury program, encouraged Austin’s parents, Jennifer and Matt, that Austin still had time for tremendous improvement. Nurses also remained optimistic, assuring Jennifer and Matt that Austin was still “in there.”
“They treated him like a person,” Jennifer says. “They became like family to me. It was just me there; Matt was home with Austin’s younger brother, Caleb. While we were there, I would walk the halls with him, reading to him the stories of recovery that were posted on the walls. ‘Someday, your story will be up there,’ I told him.”
In late November 2014, Austin returned home. His mom recalls the day he finally spoke again.
“One day I asked him to say ‘Mom,’ and he did,” Jennifer says. “That was more than four months after his injury, but it was the point at which progress visibly accelerated.”
Smiles and emotions began to return, and the family knew it was time for Austin to begin outpatient rehabilitation at Shepherd Pathways, Shepherd Center’s comprehensive outpatient rehabilitation program for people recovering from brain injury. For two months, the Pathways team worked intensely with Austin. He began running again and relearned life skills.
“There was so much to relearn,” Jennifer says. “It was a full day of rehab every day.”
The camaraderie of other Pathways families, outings, recreation therapy and an atmosphere free of self-pity encouraged Austin to continue to pursue his passion for academics.
“I’ve wanted to teach since I was about 16 or 17,” Austin says. “I love working with kids – they have such good energy. And I like school, so I put the two together.”
Prior to sustaining a TBI, academics always came naturally to Austin. Although he has to try harder now, he has persevered to achieve his dream of becoming an educator.
“My ability to learn has not been impaired, I just have to put in more effort,” Austin says. “As a teacher, I want to use my story as a motivator. I want to instill in the students the desire to learn – that anyone can do it if they try.”
Once Austin started college, he took a steady, patient approach to navigating his courses.
“I started college with one class, then I gradually added more,” Austin says. “Starting out, I was exhausted, but I had the drive to get my degree.”
In May 2020, Austin graduated with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from East Tennessee State University. His story is definitely wall-worthy.
Written by Pamela Evans
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.