Paralympian, Shepherd Center Athlete and Coach is Living His Calling
One of the first things Bill Furbish learned about Terry Lee, his roommate at Shepherd Center in 1985, was that he was a wheelchair athlete. Then he met Terry’s girlfriend.
“Terry was athletic, confident, had a career and a beautiful girlfriend,” Bill says. “I thought ‘Shoot, all of these things are possible.’”
The statue of the wheelchair javelin thrower in front of Shepherd Center is dedicated to Terry for his pioneering achievements as a wheelchair athlete. If there is ever a need to cast another wheelchair athlete in bronze, Bill Furbish would be a great candidate.
The 52-year-old Brookhaven, Ga., native won gold and bronze medals in track and field at the 1988 Paralympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. He helped start and is still a member of Shepherd Center’s wheelchair rugby team and he holds world records in two of the three adaptive water skiing events — slalom and jumping.
“We call him Super Quad,” says Minna Hong, director of Shepherd Center’s peer support program. “He’s able to show paraplegics, as well as quads, things you wouldn’t believe. When I see him do certain transfers, it still floors me – the places he pops in and out of.”
“He’s an amazing athlete,” says Matt Edens, coordinator of Shepherd Center’s sports teams. “He’s amazing in quad rugby and water-skiing, but I think one of his best attributes is what he gives back as a coach, mentor and family man. He shows our patients, ‘I’ve been there and done this, and I’m still doing it.’”
Bill sustained a complete spinal cord injury at the C-7 level the day after his last exam at Georgia Southern University.
“I was celebrating with friends, and alcohol was involved,” he says. “We were jumping off a bridge into water, and I decided to dive. It was too shallow. I was 22. I almost made it out of the danger years.”
Bill had been a high school athlete and participated in intramural sports in college, but water skiing was his passion. When he grasped the reality of his situation, he wept.
But his primary care nurse arranged for him to change rooms and meet Terry, who had returned to Shepherd Center for a procedure.
“I thought my life was over, but it’s funny how God works in your life,” Bill says. “Every time I needed something – wow! – it was provided. My nurse, Carol McMahon, recognized my emotional needs and knew Terry would be an awesome influence.”
Not only did Terry encourage Bill’s interest in recreation therapy, but it was also the year that manufacturers introduced adaptive water skiing equipment.
“That showed me the things I could do instead of focusing on what I couldn’t do,” Bill says. “It really turned things around. I loved to water ski, and they said, ‘Well, you can water ski.’ I also got into wheelchair racing immediately.”
When quad rugby was introduced, he signed up, too, and to this day, he prizes the camaraderie he gets from being part of a team rather than a solitary competitor.
“We have a pretty unique and special team,” Bill says. “It’s almost like family.”
While playing rugby, Bill met Cathy Herbert, a Shepherd Center physical therapist who volunteered with the team. When their dating grew serious, Bill worried less about being in a wheelchair than about his life expectancy.
“I wondered, ‘Is this fair to her?’” he says.
Cathy had no such reservations. They’ve been married 17 years and have two daughters – Meredith, 15, and Teagan, 13.
“Teagan is quick to point out that Bill’s a cool athlete with world records,” Cathy says.
Bill’s degree is in computer science, and after an internship at Coca-Cola, he started Shepherd Center’s information technology department. He also served as the director of information services when the Paralympic Games came to Atlanta in 1996. He finished his career with BellSouth, Accenture and AT&T. Bill retired three years ago.
“I was getting more disabled and losing more function,” he says.
That led to conversations with Minna Hong and another peer supporter, Scott Keithley, about starting a group to address aging with spinal cord injury.
“That was Bill’s idea,” Minna says. “A lot of people with disabilities have outlived their life expectancy. With aging, there’s normal deterioration, but with spinal cord injuries, it’s amplified. Why not gather together and see how we can readjust and live a better, independent and healthier life?”
“We want to do what we can to prepare ourselves,” Bill says.
In April, Bill and the rugby team competed in the national championships in Louisville, Ky., and in late September, he may participate in the Disabled World Water Skiing Championship in California.
Otherwise, Bill is involved in family activities, coaches the water skiing team and volunteers at Shepherd Center.
“It’s part of my calling,” he says. “I think I’ve helped by example – if not by direct counsel. I’m so grateful that the Shepherd Center recognizes that recreation is so important, even though it’s not covered by insurance. When I’m traveling, I can spot those who’ve been through Shepherd’s program or an equivalent. You can see a remarkable difference in capability and independence. It’s not the disability that disqualifies you, it’s the attitude.”
Written by John Christensen
Photos by Louie Favorite
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 neurological 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 740 inpatients, nearly 280 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.