Atlanta, GA,
09:48 AM

Learning to Play a New Tune

Thanks to help from Shepherd Center’s Assistive Technology Center and his therapy team, Clevance Weekes returned to playing the piano after sustaining a spinal cord injury.

Clevance Weekes, 52, has music in his blood. His family on both sides is involved in ecclesiastical music, and he has played piano since high school. So, when his therapy team at Shepherd Center asked him about how important returning to the piano was, the answer was unequivocal: “I told my therapists that if I couldn’t play my piano, I would die. I need to play; it’s part of my life.”

On August 10, 2021, Clevance was driving from his home in Franklin, Georgia, to his job at a plant where he helps make tractors. Every weekday, he leaves the house before the sun rises and clocks in between 5:45 and 6 a.m. This day was like any other until the unexpected happened.

“My pickup truck rolled over four times and hit a tree,” Clevance says. “To this day, I have no idea exactly what happened. Two weeks of my life, from that morning to the first hospital room I was in, to my operation, are gone.”

In addition to breaking both his shoulders, sustaining injuries to his hips and having significant wounds, Clevance also had sustained a T-11 spinal cord injury (SCI).

When he arrived at Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program on August 24, his therapy team got to work to help him achieve his goals, including returning to the piano. The team affectionately calls Clevance by his last name, Weekes.

“While Weekes could lift and drop his foot, he wasn’t able to move his toes or his ankle to press a standard piano pedal. This was frustrating to him because it made a difference in the sound,” says Katie Murphy, CTRS, recreational therapist at Shepherd Center.

Clevance adds, “When you play the piano, it sings. When I couldn’t press the pedals anymore, I couldn’t make it sing the way I wanted to, and it was devastating.”

Murphy teamed with Clevance’s physical therapist, Lindsay Brinker, PT, DPT, to use common items around the hospital to craft a makeshift extension that attached to the piano pedal.

“With a longer pedal, Weekes could use more of the heel of his foot where a majority of the weight was being applied when he dropped his leg onto the pedal instead of relying on his toes or ankle,” Brinker explains. “After testing it with him, we realized it could work! Unfortunately, our mock device wasn’t sturdy enough, and there was really nothing out there we could buy for pianos. That’s when we decided to contact Jared.”

Jared Grier is a rehabilitation engineer in Shepherd Center’s Assistive Technology Center (ATC). Grier, who was a patient at Shepherd in 2015 after sustaining a spinal cord injury, began working at Shepherd Center in 2021. Since then, he has combined his engineering background and expertise in 3D printing to help Shepherd Center patients.

“I found how much of a useful tool 3D printing was for myself personally,” he says, “For example, for a while, it was hard for me to open the gas cap on my car, so I 3D printed a handle like a wrench to help myself get it off and put it back on.”

His work changes daily, but he sums up his role this way: “A rehab engineer utilizes engineering principles in the clinical environment to enhance patient care. I work with my colleagues in the ATC and therapy teams across the hospital on a variety of projects.”

“Using specialized software, I am able to custom design parts that patients need after I consult with the patient and their therapy team,” Grier says.

In Clevance’s case, Murphy and Brinker asked for a sustainable solution for the piano pedal extension. After some back-and-forth, Grier figured out he needed a rigid design that wouldn’t flex, long enough to accommodate the way Clevance’s heel hit the pedal, and a size that could fit different pedals on whichever piano Clevance was using.

Clevance will never forget the day he got to play the piano the way he envisioned again using Grier’s device.

“For the first time since my accident, I heard a sustained sound when I pressed the pedals, and I just cried,” he says. “I realized that the piano was no longer taken away from me. The accident took it, but the team at Shepherd gave it back. That for me is life – I dream and compose music.”

Clevance graduated from Shepherd Center’s outpatient Day Program on January 14, 2022. His wife created a music studio for him at their home, where he’s busy using his 3D printed pedal adapter to compose music, which he hopes to release in the future. He also looks forward to playing at his church.

“What the team at Shepherd did for me is show me nothing is out of reach,” Clevance says. “I’ll never say I won’t be able to do this or that anymore. You can do anything – just don’t stop.” 

By Damjana Alverson

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.