Musician Beats the Odds, Reclaims Life and Successful Career
After being struck by a drunk driver, Billy Wilkerson overcame a severe brain injury to see life through a new lens and continue his passion for music.
Four years ago, doctors questioned whether Billy Wilkerson would ever walk or talk again, says his wife Jill, while sitting on their front porch in Dacula, Ga. Today, nine surgeries later, he is a certified fitness coach through CrossFit, a core strengthening and conditioning program. He dead lifts 325 pounds, professionally writes, sings and records music, wrestles his 4-year-old son Dawson and 7-year-old daughter Evie, and does most other things he did before the accident. That outcome, however, wasn’t always so clear.
On July 31, 2011, Billy and his best friend of 20 years had just left a friendly card game in Decatur, Ga., when their car was hit by a drunk driver, leaving both Billy and his friend Ron with severe traumatic brain injuries. The impact crushed Billy’s face, snapped his forearm and thrust him into a coma for the next seven days. He spent 16 days in the Intensive Care Unit at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta before transferring to Shepherd Center, where for the next month he underwent intensive rehabilitation.
“When I arrived, I couldn’t remember my son, couldn’t remember any songs, what day it was, how I had gotten there,” says Billy, a songwriter for the past 16 years.
Then one day, at Jill’s urging, Billy started singing, retrieving from some jumbled space in his muddled brain a single song – Amazing Grace. He sang every stanza. Completely. Clearly. Perfectly. And through wired jaws – so began Billy’s path to recovery.
Thanks to an intensive 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily rehabilitation regimen – physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy – he progressed. But it wasn’t only his body and mind that improved, he says. His spirit improved, as well.
“Shepherd Center actually helped design that part of me – that desire to create a new normal, the desire to keep pushing,” he says, “The energy there was just so different. I knew I was in a place that truly cared about the patient.”
That level of care extended beyond Billy’s hospital room and into Shepherd Center’s on-campus housing, where his family stayed so they could be close. “It brought so much peace knowing our family could be together,” Jill says. “Billy was a stay-at-home Dad for three years before the accident, so it was really important for the kids to see him.”
Since Billy’s discharge from Shepherd Center in 2011, Evie and Dawson have watched their Dad return – physically, to be sure, but mentally and emotionally, as well, Billy says.
“In some ways, the accident was a good reset button,” he says. “The whole experience has been an evolution of watching my brain reconstruct and re-perceive what is and isn’t important in life. Every day, I go outside and say ‘thanks’ for waking me up. It’s interesting how you start to see everything fitting together in new ways. It’s definitely helped me be a better husband and a better dad.”
Billy has gone so far as to share coffee with the man whose drunken driving caused his pain in the first place. He has written parole letters on behalf of the still-incarcerated man and harbors no ill will. “He was a kid who made a bad decision,” Billy says. “Maybe his BMW even knocked some sense into me!”
“Billy’s always been the peacemaker in the family,” says Jill, who met her husband in grade school and marked their sixth wedding anniversary watching doctors take him off the ventilator. “He easily could’ve hated the driver, but investing all that energy just takes away from your own life, so what’s the use?”
Billy hasn’t completely returned to life before the accident. He doesn’t tour with a band or perform at venues like Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium the way he did before. He doesn’t drive with his kids in the car and takes several naps a day, which he attributes to the chronic fatigue stemming from the injury. He also has navigated a choppy emotional sea coping with the loss of his best friend, who remains in a persistent vegetative state only a couple of miles from Billy.
But Billy has recovered far beyond expectations, says Jill, who pushed him early on to resume his singing and songwriting – even with a tracheostomy still firmly in place – because “songs are what you do.”
Billy is glad to be where he is – present for his family, mentally strong and in the best physical shape of his life. And he’s grateful for the path that has led him home.
He and Jill have stayed in touch with Shepherd Center, participating in a program that links them with area middle schools, where they talk with students about brain injuries.
“The first time we did it was two years after the accident,” Jill says of their involvement. “And we knew immediately it was something we’d continue doing.”
“I enjoy telling my story – encouraging kids to do anything, even with a brain injury – to live life,” Billy says.
“I want to show them that it’s not so much the conflict in life, but how you react to the conflict that makes the difference.”
One-half of the duo called The Brothers Bright, Billy writes and sings for Buford, Ga.-based Whitestone Motion Pictures. The Brothers Bright’s songs are available on iTunes, and one, “Blood on My Name,” was recently featured in the post-Super Bowl episode of NBC’s “The Blacklist.”
Written by Shawn Reeves
Photos and Video by Brandon McCormick, Whitestone Motion Pictures
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.