Patient Profile: Kevin Hillery
Former patient enrolls in law school after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy.
Kevin Hillery, 23, would rather not talk about himself, even if he understands why other people do.
Last year, he became the first person with paraplegia to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy. He then entered Georgetown University’s law school and landed on Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30: Law and Policy” list.
Ask Kevin what advice he gives to people facing adversity, and you’ll get a long pause. “Well, I don’t know if I have any coherent advice,” he says. “I just think it’s important to take help from the people who are close to you and who are caring about you and willing to offer it. Just be grateful for any opportunity you have and keep your mind on what’s important for you.”
Instead of talking about himself, he will tell you about the people who helped him along the way: Naval Academy buddies who reacted swiftly when a tree fell on him in a wilderness competition; family and Navy officials who worked to get him back into the academy; and Shepherd Center professionals who helped him start his rehabilitation.
He came to Shepherd Center with one goal: “I was just hoping to get back to school at the academy.”
Kevin, who had been a high school distance runner in his hometown of Medway, Mass., was part of an “adventure racing” team at the Naval Academy. Teams navigate with a map and compass through wilderness areas to hit checkpoints while mountain biking, running, and kayaking or canoeing.
On April 16, 2011, Kevin’s team was competing in a storm in the Shenandoah Valley near Front Royal, Va. “I don’t actually remember the accident,” he says. “We were mountain biking down a hill, me and three friends, and a big tree blew over. It hit me on the bike helmet, then rolled down my back and landed on the tire, which stopped the bike. And then I flew over the handlebars. After that, my three buddies took care of me.”
Two classmates used their coats to shelter him. A third spotted a house where he could get an address to guide an emergency airlift crew to their location in the forest.
A spinal cord injury in Kevin’s lower back required surgery at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville. For rehabilitation, he came to Shepherd Center in May 2011.
“I just loved the people at Shepherd,” Kevin says. “The nurses and therapists were great. It was a happy place; everybody liked their jobs. That trickled down to the patients and that made it a lot easier for everybody.” Herndon Murray, M.D., Kevin’s physician at Shepherd Center, remembers him as a great patient.
“He’s a very high achiever,” Dr. Murray says. “He works hard and he’s a goal-oriented type person, or otherwise he wouldn’t have been in the Naval Academy. And I think that transferred over into his rehabilitation.”
Tina Raziano, military coordinator for Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative, says Kevin’s humble attitude is common among military service members. “Kevin is one of those who has accomplished a lot and done tremendous work but is very modest and doesn’t like a lot of recognition,” she explains. Raziano was among many who helped Kevin, his family and the Naval Academy deal with his first-of-its-kind request to rejoin his classmates.
“That was the most important part, just getting back to all my good friends,” Kevin says. “I have a close bond with my company. I was with a company of 40 kids right from the start, and I’m still friends with all of them today.”
After additional rehabilitation at the U.S. Veterans Affairs Medical Center in West Roxbury, Mass., Kevin went home to Medway, worked out at the YMCA and caught up on his interrupted Naval Academy semester, thanks in part to his family’s season tickets for Navy football.
Before each Saturday home game, he and his parents drove to Annapolis on Thursday so Kevin could take a make-up final exam on Friday. He had piled up extra credits before the accident, so he graduated with his company on May 29, 2012.
His injury precluded a Navy commission, so he decided on law school. He began classes at Georgetown in August 2012.
He lives alone in an apartment near the campus. He hangs out with friends on weekends and smiles politely when people praise his accomplishments, even though he wishes they would talk about something else. His wheelchair is a fact of life, but it’s nowhere near the most important thing about him.
“I just try to live my life normally and don’t focus on disability at all,” Kevin says. “Occasionally, you run into problems. Sometimes you can get around them; other times you can’t. If you can’t get in one restaurant, just go to a different one.”
Kevin hasn’t settled on career goals and doesn’t worry about that. As he says in characteristically few words: “I am very happy where I am.”
Written by David Simpson
Photography by Abby Greenawalt
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 900 inpatients, 575 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year.