Pushing Past the Comfort Zone
After Ben Trockman sustained a spinal cord injury in 2006, he rediscovered his identity and began advocating for people with disabilities.
March 19, 2006, was the day that changed Ben Trockman’s perspective on life. At that time, he was a 17-year-old boy who, as he light-heartedly puts it, had his mind on three priorities.
“At the time, I was only thinking about my job, my truck and girls,” Ben jokes.
If you have a chance to meet Ben today, now 32, the first thing you notice is his sense of humor. He has a fun-loving way about him that puts you at ease, even when he talks about topics like his rehabilitation journey. Today, he funnels that outgoing spirit into pursuits such as working as a disability advocate and serving on his local city council in Evansville, Indiana. But getting to where he is today wasn’t easy.
On that day in 2006, Ben was visiting Poole, Kentucky, with family and friends to go dirt biking. Ben, an avid sports fan who enjoys a little competition, loved to race. Although he can’t remember exactly what happened, he knows he was thrown from his dirt bike during a race, resulting in a C-1 and C-2 level spinal cord injury. The 30 minutes before emergency personnel arrived were harrowing.
“When I was injured, I stopped breathing on my own,” Ben says. “My father gave me CPR for 30 minutes before emergency crews arrived. He saved my life.”
Ben was flown by helicopter to Deaconess Hospital in Evansville closer to his home. He spent nine days there until he was stable enough to be transported to Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program.
“I didn’t wake up from a state of unconsciousness for seven days after arriving at Shepherd,” Ben recalls. “I don’t think there was ever one specific moment where I realized how different my life would become due to my injury. It was more of a slow realization over time that my life was changing.”
Pushing Past His Comfort Zone
During his first month at Shepherd Center, Ben struggled with anxiety about his uncertain future.
“Going from a 17-year-old who knew nothing about disability to being thrust into the unique position where I had to count on someone to help with daily things like feeding and scratching my nose was quite a transformation,” Ben says. “Initially, I was so anxiety-ridden that I did not want to get out of bed or do therapy. I was comfortable where I was.”
Gradually, Ben opened up to his therapy team and tried new things.
“My therapy team was determined to encourage me,” Ben says. “It took me a long time – two weeks of complaining about getting out of bed and into my chair – but I eventually did it. Without them, I might still be sitting in that bed.”
Ben also received support from family and friends.
“My mom was a huge emotional support for me,” Ben says. “Both my parents really benefited from the classes on how to care for someone with a spinal cord injury. Those classes prepared us to be successful after we returned home.”
As Ben emerged from his shell, his signature sense of humor began to come back. Ben recalls when some friends visited him at Shepherd Center and had brought along comedian Jeff Dunham’s latest stand-up DVD to watch.
“This was back when DVDs were still a thing,” Ben jokes. “There I was, attached to a big ventilator that would alarm any time I lost my breath. So we’re cracking up watching the stand-up special, and all these alarms kept going off because I was laughing so hard. There was one poor staff member who had to run down the hallways three or four times just to check that I was OK!”
Ben returned home from Shepherd Center after about four months. He credits his time at the hospital for setting him up to succeed post-injury.
“The caring staff is a testament to the culture of the hospital,” Ben says. “My time there is the reason I’ve been able to live at home pursuing a full-time career while staying healthy and relatively sane!”
After returning home to Evansville, Indiana, it took Ben a couple of years to rediscover who he was. With support from his friends, family and his care team, he graduated from high school on time with his classmates and then pursued a bachelor’s degree at the University of Southern Indiana (USI).
“Initially, I didn’t have the confidence and spunk I did as a smartass kid,” Ben quips. “Being out in public and going to college made me anxious. Then in 2012, I had the opportunity to serve as a national ambassador with Easterseals for a full year.”
Easterseals is a nonprofit organization providing disability services, with additional support areas serving veterans and military families, seniors and caregivers. Ben traveled across the United States and learned about the challenges faced by people with a variety of disabilities.
“Through that experience, I presented to and interacted with all kinds of people and families,” Ben says. “It gave me confidence and made me realize public relations and advocacy were what I wanted to do.”
After graduating from college, Ben was hired at Old National Bank as their diversity and inclusion outreach specialist. He focuses on helping the financial institution become more inclusive of people with disabilities for their workforce and the communities the bank serves. To that end, Ben started a program called Achieve Ability, which pairs executive leaders at the bank with individuals with disabilities for a year-long mentorship program.
“The program was based on my experience with great mentors before I started my career,” Ben says. “We can help mentees build confidence and their professional network.”
Ben has pursued his desire to serve the public in another way. He was inaugurated as a member of his local city council in January 2020.
“For me, the thought of being able to lead and be an active part of the change in my city is very rewarding,” Ben says.
Getting into politics also helped him tap into the competitive nature he had as a kid.
“Quite frankly, running for office helped me harness my competitive nature, which I hadn’t done since before my injury,” Ben says. “I may have lost a little hair and aged six years from the process, but I really enjoyed the rush.”
In March 2021, Ben marked the 15-year anniversary of his injury. He offers two pieces of advice to anyone going through a similar experience.
“Focus on what you can control one day at a time,” Ben says. “My other piece of advice is something my mom and I embraced while I was at Shepherd Center. Give yourself 15 minutes a day to feel mad, sad or whatever you want. When that 15 minutes is up, get back to work and back to making progress.”
Written by Damjana Alverson
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.