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Return to Life & Work

Chico Garcia did not waste much time getting back to work as the cheerleading coach at Louisiana State University after completing rehabilitation for a C-4 complete spinal cord injury he sustained in a boating accident in August 2011.

But his journey has not been a simple one. While his return to work was relatively quick, Chico’s return to life took some time.

By October 2011, Chico, 30, was back to coaching, albeit via Skype from his room at Shepherd Center, but it took much longer to get back to being himself. Even after the outgoing young man returned to Baton Rouge to work in person with the Tigers, Chico was two people rolled into one body.

The world saw one Chico, but he did not deceive his parents. Syrjala and Pipo Garcia – or Sue and Mr. G as they’re known in the cheerleading community – knew the score.

“He wasn’t fooling me,” Syrjala says of her son’s ability to put on a show. “I knew if he was in the house and the doorbell rang, a switch went on. He would tell people, ‘I’m doing good.’ On the outside, he made it seem he was no different.”

On the inside, Chico suffered long after the accident, where as a passenger in the rear of a boat he was hurtled forward when the craft hit a dock.

As he learned from doctors the extent of his injury – he has movement from the shoulders up – Chico went into a funk. Then, he created a fictional public persona that betrayed his soul but worked well for his job.

“As soon as I came to my senses, I knew I was paralyzed,” says Chico, recalling the accident. “I was trying to pick up my body, and the only thing that would move was my head. Three or four days after getting to Shepherd Center, and them explaining. . . that was the lowest moment of my life. No marriage. No kids. Have to live with someone the rest of my life.

“Coming from an athletic background. . . secretly, I was in that valley,” he says. “I didn’t show it publicly because of my role. I felt it wasn’t appropriate. I was very depressed and I hated my life. I was a very good actor. People would ask, ‘How you doing?’ I’d say, ‘Great.’ In the back of my mind, I was hoping to die.”

This went on for quite a while, and so did Chico – aggressively, yet miserably. Using a sip-and-puff interface to navigate his power wheelchair and assistive technologies to communicate and control his environment, Chico immersed himself in his work. LSU has a well-respected cheer squad that typically fares well in competition.

The New Orleans native cheered from 2002 to 2006 for the Tigers, and before he graduated in December 2006 with a degree in general studies, school officials asked him to remain as an assistant coach.

After about a year, Chico was promoted to head coach. That job included plenty of road trips, not only to football and basketball games but to competitions.

Chico Garcia, 30, of Baton Rouge, La., returned to work as the cheerleading coach at Louisiana State University after completing rehabilitation at Shepherd Center for a C-4 complete spinal cord injury he sustained in a boating accident in August 2011.

He’s curtailed travel to away games, but Chico’s still very involved with big events. He went to China with the squad in December 2012, and in January 2013, he made a 12-hour bus trip to and from Orlando for a major competition.

In the middle of last year, he also returned to his part-time job at the Mall of Louisiana as a creative specialist at the Apple store. He’s still teaching customers how to use Apple’s technology products, he says, “without being able to touch them.”

For a while, Chico’s accident left him wrecked on the inside. Until, that is, he had an epiphany around Thanksgiving 2012.

“I was watching Netflix, sitting in bed and self reflecting: ‘You know what? You’ve lived a great life and can now just live it in a different way. You will not be happy unless you move on from this accident,’” he recalls.

Just like that, Chico overruled his personal sorrow.

“I like that quote from Buddha, I think: ‘Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You are the one who gets burned,’” he says. “I actually apologized to my mom and dad that night. I’ve changed my ways as far as being snappy or disrespectful.

“The only thing I can associate it with is like the image we have of (heaven’s) pearly gates . . . when they open up and you see that light come through,” Chico adds. “I don’t know how to put it in words. Happiness just came out and radiated.”

Chico got a jump on his recovery at Shepherd Center through inpatient rehabilitation.

“Unlike other businesses you may encounter, everybody at Shepherd truly loves their jobs,” he says. “And I really liked it when we were in a group of 10 or so people, and we were talking about what we were feeling, although I still had a trach tube at the time.”

These days, Chico is working on several business ideas and has devised a few gadgets to aid himself and perhaps others. He has devised ways to mount his iPhone and an iPad to his chair, and improved the stylus he uses to peck at the devices.

“After hours of asking my mother and father to take the stylus out of and put it in my mouth, we went to Lowe’s and bought one-inch PVC and connectors, and I made a mouth tray holder,” he says. “Everybody thinks it came with my chair.”

A motorcylist before his accident, Chico is working with others to create a wheelchair-accessible motorcycle sidecar. He plans to call that company “I Can Ride Teaux,” a tip of the cap to the Cajun influences in his area. Chico is also working on motivational speaking and drafting a proposal to become LSU’s official motivator for all sports.

By mid-season of fall 2012, he was again at Tiger Stadium.

“Initially, LSU was hesitant to let me on the field in case of injury,” he explains. “They were saying to sit in the stands, but my voice doesn’t carry. My diaphragm prevents yelling. They let me on the opposite side of the field. There’s a little bit more space on the east side.”

Though he has not regained any movement since the accident, Chico is evolving – focusing on what he does have. “I can feel temperature and pressure everywhere,” he notes. “That has changed. I can feel my Rottweiler, Tabasceaux, when she sits on me.”

Another Journey Back to Life
Like Chico, Kylie Stephens Guest, 26, of Brunswick, Ga., was into motion. An award-winning dancer for many years, she sustained an L-1 complete spinal cord injury (SCI) in a car accident on Jan. 4, 2008 near Melbourne, Fla. Now, Kylie, who uses a wheelchair, may soon return to the dance field – perhaps as an instructor. She also recently finished her first job – a one-year assignment with the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center near Brunswick.

Her timeline is, like Chico’s, fluid, yet she frequently realizes the benefits from the various forms of therapy she underwent at Shepherd Center.

“Before the accident, my priority was dancing,” she recalls. “I did tap, jazz, lyrical, ballet and modern. We did a lot of competitive dancing, national and all that.”

It has taken Kylie some time to consider what might be her new kind of involvement in dance. She is only now at a point where she believes she would enjoy being a dance instructor, she says.

After the injury, Kylie spent considerable time undergoing rehabilitation at Shepherd Center. “They transferred me (following the accident) the day after my birthday,” Kylie recalls. “It was not a good time for me. But now, I know I’m lucky to be alive and very blessed. I’m able to put on leg braces and I can kind of take steps in leg braces.”

Kylie returned to Shepherd Center in summer 2012 to learn to drive a car adapted with hand controls. She’s been driving independently since then.

“The Day Program is what I remember most,” she says. “I got to stay in an apartment with my mother. I had awesome therapists. They whipped me into shape. It was nice to work with people who were going through the same thing as me. It was like we were fighting the same battle.”

Kylie Stephens Guest, 26, of Brunswick, Ga., made a comeback to a full life after sustaining an L-1 complete spinal cord injury in a car accident in 2008. She married Josh Guest in September 2012 and completed her first full-time job assignment last year, as well.

Now, Kylie is contemplating whether to return to work or resume studies at Coastal Georgia Community College. “I’m kind of in between,” she says. “I’m trying to find out what I want my degree in. It will probably be in some sort of business administration.”

Her life is full, though. She married Josh Guest in a beautiful ceremony on Sept. 22, 2012. Josh has taught her riflery, and she enjoys fishing locally for trout and for kingfish in the ocean.

“I just got a pink pistol for my birthday, and I love to shop, too, like most girls,” she says. “Also, my girlfriends and I get together and go to dinner a lot. They are the same friends I’ve had since I was in daycare. They have stuck by me through thick and thin.”

As she plots her next move, whether it’s a return to school, a move back into the field of dance or perhaps another job, Kylie is developing a new sense of herself, she says.

“I actually still go back to my dance school and all the recitals,” she says, “and that’s something I’d like to get into more.”

Meanwhile, in important ways, Chico is back to being the same.

“Chico has always been the happy-go-lucky, clown-around type,” his mother says. “After the injury, he would listen. Now he’s singing and rocking. He gets happy with it again. He’s joyous.”

Shepherd Center Helps Patients Return to Work
Shepherd Center staff members know the satisfaction and success a job can bring to a person. That’s why the hospital provides vocational rehabilitation counseling to help patients return to a productive work life.

While many patients make a successful return to work, the path to get them there can be a challenge. “One day, they’re out living their life, being active, and the next they’re rehabilitating at Shepherd Center, and they can’t do simple tasks like scratch their nose,” explains vocational rehabilitation specialist Barbara Teague.

“Sometimes, patients say ‘Oh my God. I’m never going to go back to work!, she says.’”

But Shepherd Center staff members set out every day to change the narrative for patients.

More than 92 percent of the patients discharged from Shepherd Center return to their homes and communities while the national average is 72 percent. More than half of patients with spinal cord injury who discharge from Shepherd return to work or school within five years of injury.

Shepherd Center offers a broad continuum of care, ranging from an intensive care unit to inpatient treatment to outpatient therapy to vocational rehabilitation counseling. Vocational rehabilitation specialists assess patients’ job experiences and abilities, counsel them on adjusting, improving or acquiring new skills and/or education, and assist patients in returning to an existing job or pursuing a search to find a new one.

“Most of the patients we see are looking forward to going back to work, but we see patients from different levels of educational and work experience.” Teague explains. “Some are younger and need to return to school for additional education to increase their transferable skills; some have had very physical jobs that they cannot return to, and some have jobs they can return to with the support of job coaching and/or modifications.

“It can take a while because sometimes, it’s just hard for people to think about returning to the workforce when their whole life has changed and they may (initially) be dependent on others for many basic things.” Teague adds. “But we see so much progress. It’s very motivating to hear success stories from former patients”

Vocational rehabilitation specialists help patients understand that physical and cognitive changes need not trigger an end, but rather an evolution.

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.