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Patient with Spinal Cord Injury Receives the Ultimate Christmas Gift

Bill Lantagne of Carterville, Illinois, completes spinal cord injury rehabilitation just in time to enjoy the holidays with his family.

Bill Lantagne will receive his favorite Christmas gift three days early this year.

That’s because on December 22, Bill will be discharged from Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Day Program. With his wife Eunice at his side, he will take a flight home to Carterville, Illinois. When they reach their house, it will be decorated in strings of lights, with a Christmas tree already up and decorated and 10 stockings hanging on a lovingly crowded mantle. The couple’s daughter Dawn and her husband Brandon; their son Shawn and his wife Charity; and their four grandchildren, Kaitlyn, Sadie, Kameron and Reddik, among several other family members will be waiting with outstretched arms.

This Christmas, the close-knit Lantagne clan will be more grateful than ever for all 10 of those stockings. That’s because on August 21, they could have lost both 58-year-old Bill and his then-4-year-old granddaughter Sadie.

A family of “waterbugs,” as Bill says, the Lantagnes were on the water that day. Bill had recently bought a jet ski for the kids to enjoy, but it was often Sadie, “a daredevil who just wants to go fast,” who wanted to ride, Bill says. So, he took her out on the jet ski. Sadie laughed as Bill, her Paw Paw, scooted atop the water. At one point, Bill got too close to the bank. When he tried to execute a quick turn in the shallow water, the craft skidded straight for a tree on the shore. Bill jumped up in time to fully shield Sadie from the impact, sacrificing his body to protect her. Sadie wound up with nothing more than a scratch. Bill sustained a C-5 to -6 spinal cord injury.

After three weeks in a nearby trauma center, Bill was stable enough to transfer to Shepherd Center, where he was admitted into the Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program. Still, he had only just begun breathing completely on his own. He arrived in a neck brace, with little movement in his limbs and relying primarily on feeding tubes.

“I’m a positive person, but I remember when I first got in the gym here, I saw people on the mats, rolling, sitting, pushing, doing transfers,” Bill recalls. “And I just didn’t see how I was ever going to be doing any of that. But that’s what they’re so good about here. They got me from thinking about all the things I thought I couldn’t do to thinking about all the things I could do.”

Bill attacked his inpatient rehabilitation, focusing on upper-body strength, mobility and fine motor skills. He graduated from Shepherd Center’s inpatient Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program just before Thanksgiving, after which he progressed to Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Day Program. During his time in the day program, he and Eunice have been learning how to live independently again thanks, in part, to their stay in an accessible apartment in Shepherd Center’s Woodruff Family Residence Center on the hospital campus. (Learn more about Shepherd Center’s Housing Program.)

“We’re a team,” Bill says. “She has learned everything she possibly could for my care. She’s told me to stop saying ‘I’m sorry’ that she’s having to do this. It’s because of her that I’m doing as well as I am. It’s all about the attitude. God has given us peace about this, so we choose to work together and see the positives.”

They do so with a sense of humor, too.

“Laughter is what it’s all about,” Bill says. “I’m just in a chair. Nothing else has changed. When I go home, I want people to come in, crack jokes, laugh, have fun. That’s still allowed!”

He shouldn’t worry too much about that. While he’s been in Atlanta, his hometown has rallied around him back in Carterville. Fundraising events, such as fish fries, golf scrambles, potluck dinners – all full of fun – have helped support the Lantagnes. Volunteers have even pitched in to renovate the family’s home, installing ramps, wood flooring, widened doors and a larger shower.

“We’ve got a big thank-you tour to take when we get home,” Bill says.

He’s also realizing – just as his Shepherd Center therapists have long told him – how normal his new life can really be. During the first weekend of December, Bill, an avid hunter, once again donned camouflage for a hunting trip in Monticello, Georgia, organized by Shepherd Center outdoor specialist Chris Ravotti and Shepherd Center’s Recreation Therapy Program team. In Monticello, a group of 10 people, including four patients in wheelchairs, stayed in a single cabin, with a single bathroom, which was not wheelchair accessible.

“And we had an absolute blast,” Bill says. “Oh, we roughed it, but that was the point – to figure out how you can make anything work.”

During the trip, Bill kept thinking back to when he first arrived at Shepherd Center.

“The things they told me I could do, I’d say, ‘You’re out of your mind,’” he says, laughing. “Once I got out on that hunting trip, I thought, ‘OK, you guys were right.’ I never thought I’d be outdoors doing things like this. Just to smell the pines – I didn’t even care if I got anything on the hunt!”

He’ll have plenty of outdoors time with his family in the new year. Hunting with his kids, taking his grandkids fishing. But, first, it’s Christmas. Bill and Eunice are ready to fly. They have already taken a practice run on an airport mobility outing offered by Shepherd Center. Soon, they will be home. Everyone – including Sadie and Bill – will be there, and this year, that’s all that really matters.

Read more about Shepherd Center's Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program.

By Phillip Jordan

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.