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Patient Pledges Game On While in Rehabilitation for a Spinal Cord Injury

Will Condon approaches rehabilitation like preseason football practice -- with grit and humor while cheering on his fellow patients.

He doesn’t remember any of it – the dive into his apartment complex pool, hitting the water at a freakish angle, drowning. All Will Condon remembers is waking up 36 hours later in the intensive care unit at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, surrounded by family and being told he was paralyzed from the chest down.

Intubated and unable to talk, Will’s face registered an urgent expression. His girlfriend improvised a system that let him spell words by blinking when she pointed to the right letter of the alphabet. He batted out a painstaking but blunt response to his predicament: NOT FOR LONG.

After surgery for an incomplete C-5 spinal cord injury, the youthful teacher and coach was airlifted to Shepherd Center in Atlanta. Determined to recover, but told in North Carolina that his chances of walking again were slim, Will arrived on June 6, 2016, both hopeful and terrified. A fourth-floor night nurse recognized the fear on Will’s face and assured him: “You’re going to be fine. We do this all the time.”

“Everything was positive,” recalls Will, 31, in reflecting on his Shepherd Center experience. “It’s frustrating, humbling and depressing to go from being the most athletic person in my family to being completely helpless. But in that atmosphere, surrounded by people in the same boat, you have the sense you are not alone. That atmosphere is so important for the recovery process.”

A high school football and baseball player, Will adopted what he called an “athletic frame of mind.” Rehabilitation was slow and tough going. Because of damage to his lungs from the near-drowning, breathing remained a problem. It was two weeks before he clenched a fist. Two days later, he lifted a leg.

Meanwhile, he cheered on his fellow patients’ breakthroughs and consoled them during setbacks.

“I’ve always been a team player,” he says. “I don’t want to be the only person succeeding. I want the team to get better, and the people at Shepherd with me were my team.”

During Will’s rehabilitation, his parents moved from their home in Painted Post, New York, to live in Shepherd Center’s on-campus Woodruff Family Residence Center. They got to know the therapy team. They recorded Will’s first fist clench. His father read Will a book every morning about an NFL player’s recovery from a similar injury.

They also met other parents who lived on campus, bonding over their shared hopes and fears while performing mundane tasks.

“Being in the laundry room was as therapeutic as anything else,” says Barbara Condon, Will’s mother. “You really got to know people. It was a wonderful situation.”

Lou Condon, Will’s father adds: “It was our indoctrination to the ‘Shepherd Way.' They don’t see anything as a handicap. They see what they need to do and start working at it. It’s why I never had the feeling this was awful. It was awful, but from that point on, we were only going to go up.”

A benchmark moment came on the Fourth of July. Seated in a power wheelchair on the sidewalk outside the Center, still largely immobilized as he watched 60,000 runners rush by in Atlanta’s annual 10K AJC Peachtree Road Race, Will silently fumed.

“I was so angry, all those fully healthy people running by,” he says. “All I wanted to say was: ‘Don’t pity me. Don’t patronize me.’ For two hours out there, I slowly released all my anger. It was something I had to go through.”

Then, after he released it: “I started enjoying myself. I was high-fiving people as they ran by. I told myself, ‘I’m going to run this next year.’”

Will graduated from inpatient rehabilitation six weeks later, an event made memorable by a poem he read to about 30 staffers, patients and parents. Filled with bracing insights and inside jokes, it touched on everything he went through and everyone who helped him. It ended: “Then I’ll go home to be with my pup/ For life knocked us down but now we get… back up.”

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Next, Will moved into Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Day Program for continued rehabilitation. He finished each session dripping wet.

“That athletic mentality and competitiveness came through. I was able to push him to do more than even he knew he could do,” said Jennifer Wile, a physical therapist who worked with Will on the treadmill. “His willingness to trust us that the harder we pushed the better he gets was tied to his overall success.”

Two months after he’d arrived, he finally stood up. When he left Shepherd Center that October, he used one forearm crutch to walk out on his own.

Will now lives back in New York, teaching biology and coaching baseball. He tires easily, but walks his dog, hikes and even went skiing with his girlfriend.

He returned to Shepherd Center last July 4th – for the AJC Peachtree Road Race. He and his girlfriend walked the whole route. When he passed Shepherd Center near the halfway point, virtually dead last, memories rushed back – tubes choking his throat, pushing himself with his therapists, standing up.

A couple nurses still stood outside. Will yelled, “I was there a year ago!” They clapped, but he didn’t stop.

“I just kept walking,” he said. “That’s a statement right there.”

Written by Drew Jubera

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.