Atlanta, GA,
15:30 PM

Mother Continues to Fight for Children, Family

This Mother’s Day, Maria Rea of Hazlehurst, Georgia, reflects on life since sustaining a spinal cord injury.

Written by Maria Rea
Fomer Shepherd Center patient

In 2011, my seemingly perfect life came to a halt when I was in a horrific car crash. It left me paralyzed from the waist down and with a shattered hip and pelvis, nearly amputated arm and numerous internal injuries. After being in an intensive care unit (ICU) for four weeks in Savannah, Georgia, I was transferred to Shepherd Center’s ICU. Next, I moved on to the Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program at Shepherd Center.

I was unable to see my babies, but my husband and the rest of my family never left my side. When I was finally able to stay in a regular room, I was ecstatic. I improved, but I remained on a ventilator for a long time with a trach and chest tubes. My body was black and blue. My reality was grim. At that point, therapy literally consisted of being able to sit up in bed for longer than 30 minutes without feeling like I was going to faint.

Eventually, my children were able to visit. We lived four hours away from Shepherd Center, so it was a long trip for two little ones, who were two and five years old at the time. The hardest part was being away from them, and they became my reason to fight. But I had to learn to take care of myself first. I had to learn to catheterize myself, get dressed and drive a power chair. That in itself was a nightmare. I destroyed every piece of furniture in sight, a few walls in the rehabilitation room and even the elevator. I soon earned a big red caution sign on the back of my chair.

Seven months passed. I became extremely depressed being without my children. The doctors decided that a few weeks at home might be what I needed. Once I got home, I realized I could do nothing for myself. I couldn’t even transfer because I only had one good arm. My team at Shepherd Center recommended I come back for the Spinal Cord Injury Day Program. As hard as I knew it was going to be leaving my family again, I knew not living to my full potential would be even harder. I owed this to my family and to myself.

As I entered the Day Program, I was asked to make a list of goals. I wanted to walk on leg braces, be able to take care of my children and my house, learn to drive and go back to my job teaching 22 four-year olds. After our initial meeting to review the list, most of these goals seemed out of reach. We started with the basics – like dressing my two-year old and learning to cook and clean again. Most people would not consider these as thrilling goals, but I longed to be able to take care of my family again. My children stayed with my mom and me in the Woodruff Family Residence Center adjacent to Shepherd Center. I pushed even harder because I could see them right in front of me cheering me on. We even did yoga, art and pool therapy together.

My first round of the Day Program went by fast. I was sent home to let my body continue to heal, but I still was not where I wanted to be. I refused to accept that I would spend the rest of my life sitting in a power chair at home. I received a phone call for what I called boot camp round two.

I had so much more tenacity this time. I brought up the idea of trying a manual chair. We were all a little reluctant because of the damage to my left arm, but I was determined. I pushed that chair from sun up to sun down all over Shepherd Center until I thought my arm would fall off.

Next on the list? Leg braces. The entire staff agreed that I did not have the strength for this yet, but I begged and pleaded with my therapist to let me try. She put the braces on me, and with her assistance, I walked the length of the parallel bars and back. We were all in tears. I wasn’t wasting any more time. By the end of my second round of the Day Program, I had learned to walk with leg braces, drive a car again, transfer and use a manual chair.

In 2013, I reached my biggest goal of all: I went back to work as a full-time teacher and was even named teacher of the year for our school system! Today, I am living life to the fullest with my amazing husband and our two beautiful children. Take a hard-headed southern woman with tons of faith, and miracles will unfold. Shepherd Center not only gave me my life back, but many of the staff members are still some of my closest friends.

God is always in the miracle business, and Shepherd Center reinforces my belief in miracles on Earth.

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.