Atlanta, GA,
10:35 AM

Running Toward a Miracle

After sustaining a traumatic brain injury, Rachel Foster poured her energy into reclaiming a joyful part of her life — running.

In the wake of Rachel Foster’s awe-inspiring Boston Marathon run this spring — five short months after sustaining a traumatic brain injury that nearly killed her — the media requests rolled in. There were countless stories in Boston and Rachel’s hometown of Oklahoma City, followed by national broadcast interviews.

Through them all, Rachel’s husband John kept recalling Rachel’s earliest post-injury runs that seemed even more miraculous than the 26.2 miles that Rachel ran in a cold Boston rain. As John sees it, Rachel’s marathon began on an oval, indoor track lofted above the Livingston Gym at Shepherd Center in Atlanta — where she spent more than three months in inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation.

“I can’t count how many hours she spent up there,” John says. “As soon as she was able to run again, you couldn’t stop her.”

Rachel started by alternating two running and two walking laps, building up to a mile. By the time she left Shepherd Center, she was covering 10 miles at a time.

“Running was my biggest personal goal in physical therapy,” Rachel says. “Not just for the marathon, but because running has always been a joyful part of my life. And I had lost it in an instant.”

Back in November 2022, John and Rachel had snuck in a rare date, taking a break from the daily grind that comes with owning a small business. (In their case, an Italian restaurant named Moni’s, where John oversees business operations and Rachel is the chef.) The couple’s date ended prematurely when Rachel crashed on her electric scooter. She sustained a severe traumatic brain injury, broke 17 bones, and was placed on life support with a ventilator doing her breathing.

After 10 days in an unresponsive coma at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center, Rachel’s care team advised John that Rachel was unlikely to regain consciousness — and unlikely to eat or breathe again on her own even if she did. While John was considering the way forward, Rachel woke up. As she slowly but steadily improved, her neurosurgeon described her recovery as miraculous.

Rachel reached Shepherd Center in mid-December. Soon, a serious secondary complication emerged. Almost half of Rachel’s skull had to be removed during her initial emergency surgery in Oklahoma City to make room for the swelling in her brain. But without her skull in place, she developed sinking skin flap syndrome, a known complication with craniectomies. In Rachel’s case, her symptoms were severe headaches that got worse out of bed, making physical therapy nearly impossible.

Ford Vox, M.D., medical director of Shepherd Center’s Disorders of Consciousness Program, diagnosed the syndrome and brought in Gary R. Gropper, M.D., consulting neurosurgeon, to address the issue. The team mapped her skull and created a 3D-printed replica of the missing sections. Dr. Gropper then implanted the new cap to restore the structure of her skull. The operation provided the pain relief Rachel needed without interrupting her stay at Shepherd Center.

From there, she was off to the races.

"What was incredible to me was how quickly things could change with Rachel and then how quickly her doctors and care team would respond to find the next solution,” John says. “When you work together in a place with all the services and facilities Shepherd Center has, and the wealth of experience there, it’s an incredible advantage.”

Case in point: While Rachel poured herself into physical therapy, she discovered an unexpected benefit in Shepherd Center’s psychological services.

“The toughest things for me were the mental battles, just being frustrated with myself and mad that my body wasn’t able to do what I knew I could do,” Rachel says. “I’d never done [psychological] therapy before, and it made me uncomfortable at first. But once I started talking, it helped so much. Tim Riggins (her rehabilitation counselor at Shepherd Center) did such a good job of making me feel calm, comfortable, and accepted."

After six weeks of inpatient care, Rachel extended her rehabilitation through Shepherd Pathways outpatient rehabilitation while staying in an accessible Shepherd Center apartment next to campus.

And three weeks after leaving Shepherd Center, Rachel Foster crossed the Boston Marathon finish line.

Today, Rachel sees many more marathons ahead. She and John will stay busy with Moni’s, too. And the couple plans to keep sharing Rachel’s improbable comeback to give others hope.

Those storytelling plans include a book, and Rachel knows one story that will surely be included.

While at Shepherd Center, she became fast friends with one of her inpatient nurses, Bella Truong. The duo became so close that they decided to get matching tattoos. “I kind of talked her into it,” Rachel says with a laugh. “It was her first, but definitely not mine!”

When the ink was dry, each woman had a new mantra on their arms framed by a morning sun rising over the horizon. Above it, the words: And, too, I rise.

“That was so special to do with Bella,” Rachel says. “And those words are true. There is always hope. It sounds cheesy, but it’s important to hold onto that when there are so many things that can take your hope away and take your happiness away.”

“No matter what life throws at you, you still can rise.”


Written by Phillip Jordan

Pursuing Possible with Shepherd Center

To support patient stories like this one, please consider contributing to Shepherd Center's Pursuing Possible campaign      

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.