Atlanta, GA,
16:07 PM

Ready for Adventure: Austin Yarbrough's Story

Austin Yarbrough loves being active and getting outside. He credits Shepherd Center's recreational therapy with helping him get back to the things he loves — and even discover some new adventures.

If Austin Yarbrough still harbored any doubts about what he could do with a spinal cord injury, those doubts probably dissipated when the first whale shark swam by him, close enough to touch.

“Yeah, that was dope. It was the size of a bus,” Austin recalls about swimming in the Ocean Voyager exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium, one of his more memorable outings coordinated through Shepherd Center’s Recreation Therapy Program, the country's largest program of its kind. Funded by generous donors, recreation therapy is incorporated into rehabilitation programs to improve self-esteem, relieve stress, and increase mobility.

“The rec therapists at Shepherd were awesome about showing me I could still do the things I’d done before my injury,” he says. “And the stuff I’d never done!”

Austin, now 26, came to Shepherd Center in 2021 with far more modest dreams than swimming with sharks and manta rays. In September of that year, he had sustained a T-10 incomplete spinal cord injury in a motorcycle accident. It happened when a car pulled out in front of him as Austin, a FedEx delivery driver, was going to cash his latest paycheck.

When Austin transferred to Shepherd a month later, he had yet to sit up on his own. But he remembers the hope he felt as soon as he was wheeled through the doors.

“Everyone was all smiles and positive, helpful with anything,” Austin recalls. “I mean, the lady at the front desk was probably the nicest person I’d seen in a long, long time. It was really refreshing. I didn’t want for anything there.”

A few days in, he was sitting up with no assistance. By the end of that first week, he was pushing his wheelchair. Week two, he was putting on his clothes.

“It was crazy the progress, how quickly it happened,” Austin says.

He credits much of his improvement and positive attitude to all the recreational therapy opportunities. Pre-injury, Austin was almost always spending time outside in his hometown of Lookout Valley, Tennessee. He played basketball, football, tennis, and ultimate frisbee. He fished. He worked on cars and motorcycles, too.

“Anything with a competitive, outdoor nature to it, I’m in,” Austin says.

He quickly tried several rec therapy options during his inpatient rehabilitation, including tennis, swimming, and basketball. It’s also no surprise that Austin was thrilled to meet Shepherd Center’s outdoor recreation specialist, Gavin McClintock, CTRS. McClintock introduced Austin to hiking in a three-wheeled all-terrain wheelchair. And as Austin has continued to improve his upper-body strength and mobility over the past two years, he’s done so with the help of Shepherd’s outdoor experiences.

Working with adaptive tools and Shepherd Center’s recreation therapists, Austin learned to water ski and tube during Shepherd’s hugely popular Adventure Skills Workshop, held annually at Camp ASCCA, an accessible facility on Lake Martin. He’s gone rock climbing. He’s even learned to hunt, one of the rare outdoor activities he hadn’t done pre-injury. He's also fishing again, one of his longtime loves. Austin remembers his first fishing outing with McClintock and his Shepherd Center friends in creeks off the Soque River near Clarksville, Georgia. He caught several big rainbow trout during the outing, but they weren’t the only things in that stream getting hooked.

“I’m all about fly fishing now,” Austin says. “That was my first time, and, man, regular fishing feels boring now! With fly fishing, you’re always casting and reeling, so you’re constantly on task, always moving.”

Always in motion. That’s a pretty good description of Austin Yarbrough now, too.

Written 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.