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Less Than Two Years After Injury, Shepherd Center Alum Returns to Thank Those Who Helped Him

Andy Fuhrmann’s family was first to benefit from a Southwest Airlines medical transportation grant to Shepherd Center.

Andy Fuhrmann, 25, of Burlington, Vt., was six months into a master’s degree program in mechanical engineering when he was in a snow skiing accident at Jay Peak in Vermont’s Green Mountains. The crash caused a compression of Andy’s spinal column, pinching nerves in his neck and resulted in a C-4 to -5 incomplete spinal cord injury.

Andy sustained his injury on Feb. 22, 2013. One week later, he arrived at Shepherd Center. Andy’s mom remained with him in Atlanta throughout his stay. His dad was able to visit – and offer Andy’s mom much-needed breaks – thanks to a new Shepherd Center partnership.

The Fuhrmanns were the first beneficiaries of a Southwest Airlines Medical Transportation Grant that’s now been awarded to Shepherd Center two years in a row. The grants have provided 200 complimentary round-trip tickets to be used by patients or family members who received treatment or provided support at Shepherd Center.

“Those unexpected acts of kindness, whether they came from companies or individuals, were such a source of strength,” Andy says. “I was always so happy to see my dad, as was my mom.”

Andy’s injury was unique because the partial paralysis he experienced affected his arms more severely than his legs. So in addition to full-body workouts on the Lokomat® robotic treadmill, Andy’s therapists also designed exercises specifically for his upper limbs – including an arm cycle that provided electrical muscle stimulation.

“I’ve been a science nerd my whole life,” Andy says. “I think my own fascination with my injury was a huge help for my recovery. I was into learning the ‘why’ behind what happened.”

He loved visiting Shepherd Center’s Assistive Technology Center, where he examined different tools and high-tech devices.

“My physical therapists knew what they were doing,” Andy says. “They were my psychologists and my friends. I have a lot of respect for them. They get people through some really hard months, and you leave them just as you’re getting better. They miss a lot of the fun, rewarding times.”

This fall, Andy delighted in the chance to share one of those rewarding times with his Shepherd Center friends. In November, Southwest Airlines flew Andy and his parents to Atlanta to reunite with members of Andy’s treatment team.

“Being able to walk in there and hug my physical therapists and nurses and doctors, and being able to thank them again, was such a release,” Andy says. “I also got to talk with a current patient there whose injury was very similar to mine. We must have talked for an hour at least. It was one of those moments I’ll never forget.”

There have been many other unforgettable moments since his initial stay at Shepherd Center. This past summer, Andy joined two friends on a four-month, 18,000-mile “Appreciation of Life” road trip that took them on a winding path from Vermont to Alaska and back. He’s finishing his master’s thesis. And he’s back in action outdoors, too – biking, skateboarding and, yes, skiing.

In fact, Andy’s first time back on the slopes took place at Jay Peak exactly one year after his injury and included another emotional reunion – this one with the ski patrol team who first came to his aid.

“Skiing has always been my outlet,” Andy says. “I was worried I might not be able to embrace skiing again, but once I got out there, I felt the same freedom as ever.”

Written by Phillip Jordan
Photos by Jane Sanders

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.