Patient Becomes Doctor After Recovering from Brain Injury
After rehabilitation for a brain injury in 2005, Gabriel Rodriguez is now in the final stages of his physical medicine and rehabilitation residency.
Before his injury in 2005, Gabriel Rodriguez, now 34, was a straight-A student at Parkview High School in metro Atlanta. Gabriel had been drawn to the medical profession since he was a child living in Puerto Rico, so after he graduated from high school, he planned to major in biology at Georgia State University.
But the summer before his freshman year, Gabriel’s plans took a detour. He sustained a traumatic brain injury and multiple injuries to his legs in an automobile accident after a vehicle T-boned the car in which he was a passenger. Gabriel spent more than three months in a coma at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, and underwent more surgeries than he can remember. Then, he completed months of rehabilitation at Shepherd Center.
The road to recovery was long. The months following the accident were nothing short of terrifying for Gabriel’s mom, Lucila Tellado, and the rest of his family. But Gabriel was a fighter and gradually improved.
“I don’t think he’d be where he is without having been at Shepherd,” Lucila says. “All the nurses were so good; everybody was. They were so caring and worried about him. He began to recover, little by little. I remember him singing, ‘The Lord is My Shepherd.’ It was one of the first times he showed signs of waking up. He was beginning to recover.
“Everyone there was so good to us,” Lucila adds. “They let me basically live in the gym on the weekends so I could spend more time with him. It was great. It’s amazing how a person arrives there with no hope and how they can instill so much.”
Shortly after emerging from the coma, Gabriel straddled a fine line emotionally.
“I cried every night at first,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what would happen. I kind of thought I was screwed. I had lost a lot of muscle and was really, really skinny. My feeding tubes were getting clogged. I had to be turned all the time because it felt like my bones were trying to come out of my skin.
“I never lost hope, but at the same time, I was doubting, if that makes sense,” Gabriel adds. “I knew that if I was alive, I was going to battle and push forward. I wanted to meet my goals. The people at Shepherd helped me do that and were so comforting and encouraging, even when I was acting a little lazy in therapy.”
Gabriel’s recovery is one of the most amazing his physician Gerald Bilsky, M.D., had seen. And while he thinks the renowned programs and hard-working staff at Shepherd deserve some of the credit, most of it goes to Gabriel, he adds.
“He was a very sick young man,” Dr. Bilsky says. “He was not responsive at the beginning in ICU, and we weren’t sure if he’d wake up from the coma at all. A lot of what he accomplished has to be attributed to him, his internal drive and perseverance. It sustained him. We helped him along the way, but it was something inside of him that separated him from others, and there was some luck involved in it, too. He had a severe brain injury, was in a coma when he got here and had a whole lot of physical issues going on. I’m amazed. He exceeded what everybody thought he could achieve.”
After his outpatient therapy at Shepherd Pathways, Gabriel re-enrolled at Georgia State University in the fall of 2006. He completed his bachelor’s degree and then took some time off to focus on himself and refocus on his priorities.
Determined as ever, Gabriel did what he set out to do and began medical school in 2013. After graduating from medical school in 2017, it was time for Gabriel to decide what he wanted to specialize in during his residency.
“Initially, I pursued my residency in anesthesia,” Gabriel says. “But, after the first year, I knew that path wasn’t for me. In anesthesia, you see patients before surgery and have limited interaction with them after that. I’m a people person and missed the opportunity to talk to patients, motivate them and give them hope.”
So, in 2020, Gabriel officially switched his focus to physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) at Larkin Community Hospital in Miami, Florida. PM&R, also known as physiatry, is a branch of medicine that aims to enhance and restore functional ability and quality of life to people with physical impairments or disabilities – something Gabriel experienced as a patient at Shepherd Center.
“Because I’ve been a patient, I can inspire other patients using my first-hand knowledge,” Gabriel says. “A family member sees me and can know there’s a chance for their loved one to get better – even if it’s just a little bit. Some improvement is better than no improvement.”
In May 2021, Gabriel really came full circle when he returned to Shepherd Center for a PM&R training rotation. From May 4 to May 28, he shadowed Wes Chay, M.D., in the Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program and Comprehensive Rehabilitation Unit, and Andrew Dennison, M.D., in the Brain Injury Rehabilitation Program.
“Shepherd Center specializes in PM&R,” Gabriel explains. “More than that, the positive attitude at Shepherd plays a crucial role in peoples’ recovery. When you’re a patient, you can feel awful about not knowing what will happen with your life. I’ve been in the situation as a patient where my prognosis wasn’t good, and now as a physician, I can see people who are in those same shoes. It motivates me to be a better physician. Now, I’m in a position to give them hope, and it feels really good.”
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.