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Shepherd Center Helps Atlanta Basketball Coach Return to His Life after Rehabilitation

William Wolf will be able to return to coaching after rehabilitation for a diving-related spinal cord injury.

As an entrepreneur, William Wolf, 27, is a self-described risk taker, so it was no surprise on May 30 when he dove into a pool as he had “1,000 times before.”

It only takes once for something to go wrong. At his Decatur, Ga., apartment complex, William sustained an incomplete fracture of his C-3 vertebra and damaged an artery when he dove head first into a five-feet-deep pool.

“My hands dove under me,” William recalls. “I don’t know why, but I couldn’t brace myself, and my head hit bottom. I heard a snap and knew I’d broken my neck. All I had was my left hand flapping.”

Just 22 days after transferring to Shepherd Center from Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, where he had surgery to fuse vertebrae and mend the artery, William graduated from Shepherd’s inpatient rehabilitation program this morning.

Yet, he’ll head home as a cautionary tale.

Data compiled by the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center indicates there are about 12,500 spinal cord injuries (SCIs) per year in the United States, and sports are the fourth-leading cause behind vehicle accidents, falls and violence.

Diving accounts for about two-thirds of all sports-related SCIs, and males sustain 89 percent of those diving-related SCIs. Of them, 45 percent befall those between ages 20 to 29, and 36 percent occur in pools. About 34 percent happen in the ocean, often when a person dives into a wave and is pressed to the floor.

Most diving-related SCIs occur between Memorial Day and Labor Day. So, Shepherd Center has launched a diving injury prevention campaign this summer.

“The simple message is always to go feet first,” says Emma Harrington, MSPS, Ed. M, director of injury prevention and education at Shepherd Center. “Diving is never worth the risk.”

“We’re targeting public service announcements (PSA) to those going on beach vacations, and people doing online searches for those trips will find a PSA that will lead to our website for more information,” Harrington explains.

Meanwhile, William knows he is one of the fortunate ones among those who are injured while diving. Most sustain permanently disabling SCIs. With this perspective, he says: “The safest dive is the dive you don’t take. I’m going to live by that.”

William’s recovery is promising. He has resumed walking and has considerable strength and function in his left hand and arm, with the right side catching up.

William has received enormous support from family, friends and young men he’s mentored as a coach for St. Pius X Catholic High School’s middle school basketball program. This support has helped him remain positive throughout his rehabilitation.

“William has a great attitude,” says Anna Elmers, M.D., his physician at Shepherd Center. “He’s a coach, so he’s willing to work hard. He was extremely fortunate and blessed. We’re talking a couple more millimeters, and he would have had a very serious SCI.”

William’s treatment team at Shepherd Center has been attentive and encouraging, he says, and his parents, Bonnie and Gary Wolf of Atlanta, were ever-present at the hospital for weeks before they took a long-planned vacation abroad.

“As soon as I got to Shepherd Center, [co-founder] Alana Shepherd was bed-side,” William says. “She told me it was her 85th birthday. That was special. Grady saved my life, and Shepherd is helping put it back together like glue, and my doc’s name is Elmers – which makes glue.

“The nurses have been really nice, engaged,” he adds. “My physical therapist, Ashley Johnson, has so much energy. She’s kicked my butt. She believes in me, that I can have a full recovery. My occupational therapist, Patty Antcliff – I call the two of them ‘Pash’ – she does a lot of deep tissue massage, and has helped me with skills to dress and feed myself. They really push.”

William has come a long way since his roommate and best friend, Emily Sutlive, joined him at the pool on May 30 before his accident.

“She thought I was kidding as I was yelling,” William says of his terror-filled moments of struggle in the pool. “I thought, ‘This is how I’m going to die. I’m going to drown in front of my best friend.’ I felt horrible for her. She finally dragged me to the side.”

St. Pius X varsity basketball coach Aaron Parr, William’s friend since kindergarten and high school teammate through graduation in 2006, is coaching his buddy.

“William’s attitude made me believe he could make a comeback,” Aaron says. “Our coach used to say, ‘It’s not what happens, but how you respond.’ I think with that competitive background. . . he looks at it as adversity [to overcome], not an end.”

By June 17, William’s rehabilitation regimen took him to Shepherd Center’s basketball court.

“That was one of my biggest goals,” he explains. “I’m shooting left-handed. It feels really good to see the ball go through the net. Honestly, the best therapy is getting on the hardwood.”

William is continuing his recovery at his parents’ home, and he will return to Shepherd Center for outpatient therapy. He vows to soon resume work in his business, purchasing inventories from failing stores and reselling to liquidators.

William says he’ll coach again on and off the hardwood. And he will add one new activity to his list.

“I want to come back to Shepherd Center and volunteer,” William says. “So many people have helped. Dr. Elmers, my PT, my OT, incredible nurses, and I’ve become friends with patients. These people have helped get my life back together. I want to pay it forward.”

Written by Matt Winkeljohn
Photos by Gary Meek

Atlanta Coach Battles Back from Diving Injuryopens in new window
William Wolf makes a comeback from a spinal cord injury he sustained in a diving accident, returns to coaching basketball.

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.