Life Challenges Taught Young Man to Never Lose Sight of Hope and Dreams
Shepherd Center helped him walk again.
DèShon Haughton, 34, knew from an early age that someday he wanted to become a doctor. His first impression of medicine was at the age of 13 when his mother went through intensive treatment for breast cancer.
“DèWon, my twin brother, and I were the only ones living with her at the time. We watched her go through surgery and chemotherapy,” DèShon recalls. “This one doctor had an everlasting impact on me as he helped my mom get through. It was something I never forgot.”
The youngest of five brothers from a hardworking family, DèShon pursued his dream of going to college (the first in his family to do so) and medical school. He funded his way through college working odd jobs at odd hours. His medical school journey was fraught with challenges, but through his hard work, dedication and perseverance, he earned his medical degree from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in December 2020.
No one could have predicted that just a few weeks later, DèShon would suddenly find himself in the role of trauma patient. He was fatigued from studying for a national medical board exam when he left his parents’ home late at night. While driving to his place, weariness overcame him. His vehicle veered off the road and rolled down a hill until it came to rest upside down in a creek bed.
The crash left DèShon with multiple fractures in his spine and a closed head injury. He could not move his legs. He was rushed to Vanderbilt University Hospital and underwent 8 hours of surgery. Nine days later, DèShon was transferred to Shepherd Center to begin his rehabilitative journey with Anna Choo Elmers, M.D., the physical medicine and rehabilitation physician overseeing his care.
“When he first came in, he was in a wheelchair unable to walk, and there were basic things he couldn’t manage,” she explains.
When Dr. Elmers told DèShon, who had a serious but incomplete spinal cord injury, that things would get better once the swelling subsided, he broke down into tears, saying, “You’re telling me, I can get better?”
What followed was an intensive rehabilitative regimen. His schedule was “slammed” with treadmill walking, balance exercises, physical and occupational therapy, and participation in Shepherd Center’s innovative Beyond Therapy® program. It is a rigorous, activity-based therapy program that also includes weight training, which is among DèShon’s favorite hobbies.
“Everyone kept raising the bar and raising the bar and pushed me to my limits,” he recalls.
It was akin, in many ways, to his relationship with his medical school mentor Janet L Purkey, M.D., who worked with DèShon as a fourth-year medical student and has been teaching for more than 30 years. Before DèShon was admitted to Shepherd Center, Dr. Purkey called in advance to tell Dr. Elmers, “You’ve got our kid coming,” adding that more than others in all her years, “This young man swept me off my feet from the moment I met him.” DéShon says Dr. Purkey was “my advocate through medical school and one of the people who helped me get to the finish line.”
Her role as mentor has shifted to a deep, respectful friendship. In fact, Dr. Purkey, with Dr. Elmers’ help, made special arrangements to visit DèShon (in a socially distanced, mask-on setting due to the pandemic) at Shepherd Center, driving three hours each way.
“Everyone at Shepherd was there for DèShon. He must have felt like the most special person,” Dr. Purkey says. “The last therapist of the day who came in while I was there worked his tail off. She could see his potential and kept pushing.”
And the efforts paid off. Just a month after arriving at Shepherd Center, DèShon walked again, on his own and unassisted.
“You can’t even tell now that he has an injury. He has had such a great recovery,” Dr. Elmers says. “He makes such an impression on anyone he meets, and his story is so unique. He’s managed to overcome so many hurdles.”
Jeanne Jemison, M.D., a hospice and palliative medicine specialist in Memphis, agrees. “His rehabilitation is astounding, especially as a Shepherd Center success story,” Dr. Jemison says. “No one, including DèShon, would have predicted he would have had as much of a comeback as he has.”
Reflecting on everything DèShon has endured to put himself through medical school and to overcome his injury, his mentors are eager for the day he begins practicing medicine.
“He’s such a team player,” Dr. Jemison says. “He makes the whole team better, and he is what the medical profession needs.”
DèShon had to withdraw from this year’s physician residency match, postponing his postgraduate medical training to maximize his recovery. But seeing the energy and compassion of his nurses, doctors and therapists at Shepherd Center further validated his desire to care for others.
“It’s such a bittersweet experience to have with people whom you’ve never met,” DèShon says, choking back tears. “They take care of you while you are here, and I know it’s their job, but it’s more than that. You build a relationship with them, and they get to see you come in not walking and leave walking. It’s just amazing.”
As DèShon continues his recovery, he must pay medical expenses, start repaying extensive student loans for medical school (more than $300,000), provide for his ongoing living expenses and purchase a replacement vehicle. So, his mentors have established a GoFundMe account to help support DèShon as he copes with this career setback, but one that can ultimately direct him into his chosen field. You may give online at https://gofund.me/333cbb84.
Written by Amanda Crowe
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 743 inpatients, 277 day program patients and more than 7,161 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.