Lifelong Athlete Runs Again Following Rehabilitation for Spinal Cord Injury
Andrew Powell pushes through rehabilitation at Shepherd Center to meet his goal of running again.
Last July 4th, Andrew Powell, 41, of Kennesaw, Ga., watched from a wheelchair as more than 50,000 wheelers and runners streamed past Shepherd Center during Atlanta’s annual Peachtree Road Race.
Some runners waved to him, and a few stopped to give him hugs. As general manager of a running shoe and apparel store, Andrew had sold many of them the shoes and clothes they were wearing. He had also run the Peachtree with them every year, and he was not happy about missing it.
“I'm either gonna run this next year, or I'll be in a wheelchair rolling it,” he told a reporter from a local TV station.
Three months earlier, Andrew and his brother-in-law, Frank Guinn, were in New Orleans for the New Orleans Half Iron Man race. Andrew was an experienced competitor, having completed more than 30 marathons, 30 ultra marathons ranging from 31.1 to 65 miles, 15 triathlons and two full Iron Man events.
During an easy training bicycle ride two days before the New Orleans race, he and Frank were struck by an automobile. Frank was killed, and Andrew sustained broken bones in his hip, tailbone and ankle, as well as an incomplete T-12 spinal cord injury.
Multiple surgeries were required to stabilize Andrew’s spine and treat his fractures and wounds.
When he arrived at Shepherd Center two weeks after the accident, Andrew says: “I thought I was done. I couldn't use my left leg at all, I couldn't use my right leg much and I had little feeling in my glutes and lower back. I knew Shepherd was a good place, but I was struggling with losing Frank and trying to figure out what the new normal was. It was really a hard time.”
He also had excruciating nerve pain that had not been diagnosed.
“I’d never seen him cry, and he was crying every day,” says Andrew's wife, Sandra. “They found the nerve pain right away at Shepherd. But the first thing I noticed was that people cared – everybody from the doctors and nurses to the chaplain and the custodial staff. They all cared. It was a safe environment. They knew what they were talking about, they were upfront and honest, and they had a plan.”
Andrew was amazed by his physician, Gerald S. Bilsky, M.D.
“I’d never met a doctor like him before,” he says. “He was very encouraging. He told me things were going to get better.”
But no one could say how much better.
“I thought, ‘I’ll give up walking if he can just learn to put his socks on,’” Sandra says.
Andrew and Sandra made a pact.
“It was that if things never got better, if I never got out of the wheelchair, if I couldn’t do certain things, it would be OK,” Andrew says. “We would make it work.”
It took hard work and encouragement, but Andrew did get better.
“The therapists were amazing,” Andrew says. “They had more faith in me than I did at the start. But as I saw little changes, like the movement of a toe, that motivated me. Every change brought me a new level of freedom.”
By late June 2014, Andrew was able to put weight on his hip and begin rehabilitation exercises on a treadmill. One day, a custodian ran to tell Sandra to hurry to the gym. Andrew was about to take his first steps using a walker.
The more he improved, the harder Andrew pushed.
“There's a difference between pain and training sore,” he says. “I know training sore very well, and I wanted that. I wanted to push and try harder.”
Eventually, even Andrew’s therapists warned him to ease up because he was pushing so hard.
By August, he was walking unassisted and jogging short distances. He also went back to work, and to thank the running community for its support, he and his employer, Big Peach Running Company, staged RunAP — a 3-mile run close to the store where he works in Kennesaw.
Andrew overcame his own doubts and ran the whole race. Katie Murphy, his recreation therapist at Shepherd Center, ran with him.
“To see him reach a goal that was so important to him was awesome,” Murphy says. “To see him push himself the entire time, that was phenomenal.”
Andrew still has numbness in his side, legs and feet, but he continues to train.
“I’m working on things I learned at Shepherd to get my core and upper body stronger,” he says. “I run every other day and I'm not as fast or as strong, but in the big scheme of things, it's great.”
In July 2015, he plans to run — not race in a wheelchair — in the Peachtree Road Race. But before that, he's going to New Orleans.
“I want to go back and do what we were supposed to do last year,” Andrew says. “It may not be pretty, but I want to finish that race for myself and for Frank.”
Written by John Christensen
Photos by Louie Favorite and Phil Skinner
In the media
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 900 inpatients, 575 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year.