Atlanta, GA,
15:24 PM

Life Still Aquatic

Reagan Martin overcomes a spinal cord injury and respiratory challenges to return to the water she loves.

As Reagan Martin tells it, she and her two sisters are as close to amphibious as two-legged creatures can get. 

“We grew up in about two places — the pool and the lake,” she says.

As the sisters grew up in Clayton, North Carolina, their love of the water evolved into aquatic competition. All three earned scholarships to swim competitively in college; Reagan, 20, went to Towson University.

So, when Reagan went on a weekend trip last summer to a friend’s family home on North Carolina’s Neuse River, it’s no surprise the first thing she noticed was their dock.

“I said, ‘I’m going to jump off that before I leave here,’” she recalls.

When she did, Reagan took a running start, and at the last second, decided to dive head first rather than jump feet first. Even underwater, she heard the crack when her head hit the river bottom.

Reagan sustained a C-4 spinal cord injury that paralyzed her from the shoulders down and led to serious respiratory problems. At Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, North Carolina, the medical team placed her on a ventilator. She also endured five surgeries, countless blood transfusions, adverse reactions to several treatments and a partially collapsed lung.

In late August of 2020, six weeks after her injury, Reagan was flown by air ambulance to Atlanta and admitted to Shepherd Center’s ICU. She was still completely dependent on a ventilator. Her Shepherd care team immediately checked her lung capacity. It registered at zero. They checked again. Nothing.

Without any function of her diaphragm — the muscle that aids breathing — Reagan’s body couldn’t make use of a Diaphragm Pacing System (DPS), which can help transition patients from a ventilator and trigger their diaphragm to move on its own.

“That was a real low point,” Reagan says. “Among everything else, I knew if I was on a ventilator forever, I’d never get back in the water. I couldn’t fathom that, so I never accepted that would be the end of my story.”

Neither did her Shepherd Center care team. As Reagan’s treatments continued, she noticed she could take shallow breaths on her own while she was being transferred to a portable ventilator. In November, a test showed a slight uptick in vital lung capacity. As she continued making incremental progress, the Shepherd care team started slowly weaning her from the ventilator. On December 9, she had a DPS implanted. Improvements came rapidly. Just 10 days later, after nearly five months on a ventilator, she came off it completely. A month after that, the DPS was removed, and her tracheostomy tube came out.

“I’m so incredibly thankful for Shepherd Center,” Reagan says. “This place has changed my life in so many positive ways. I know for a fact that if I hadn’t come here, I wouldn’t be off a ventilator. And I wouldn’t be pushing myself so far physically. They do everything they can to make you as independent as possible.”

Case in point: The entire time Reagan remained on a ventilator, she was also engaging in speech, recreation, physical and occupational therapy as part of Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program.

“It was hard, but it made such a difference,” she says. “As soon as I got off the vent and the trach, I could ramp up to doing more so much quicker. Doing rehab the entire time really made me feel like I was working toward something, that I had a role to play in getting better.”

And that’s by design.

“At Shepherd Center, you don’t get treated for one thing at one time and then another thing at another time,” says David DeRuyter, M.D., Shepherd Center’s recently retired director of pulmonology and critical care medicine. “Everything is coordinated, and it all happens in unison to maximize patients’ recoveries.”

By March of 2021, Reagan was learning how to pick up objects, practicing slide board transfers to get in and out of bed and pushing longer distances in a manual wheelchair. She’ll use all these skills when she returns to college.

“I told my mom,” she says, “it’s not a question of if — it’s only a question of when I get my degree.”

Best of all: Reagan has returned to the water. On March 11, 2021, a week before leaving for home, her therapists helped her swim in Shepherd Center’s pool.

“It was incredible to get back in,” Reagan says. “It reminded me of how far I’ve come, but it also gave me a new set of goals. I’ve now got a list of things to work on to get better — in and out of the pool.”

“From where she was such a short while ago, it’s absolutely awesome,” Dr. DeRuyter says. “If it wasn’t for her spirit and determination, I don’t think she’d have gotten there. This is someone who was told she’d be on a ventilator for the rest of her life. She’s shown an incredible spirit to not give up and just keep pushing and pushing and pushing.”


Written by Phillip Jordan

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.