Atlanta, GA,
09:30 AM

Small Town Rallies Around Local Athlete Injured in Car Accident

After completing spinal cord injury rehabilitation, Joseph Stokes of Cordele, Ga., heads home for the holidays with a big goal for the new year.

Joseph Stokes, 16, of Cordele, Ga., transitioned to Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Day Program last week – and just in time. While his rehabilitation was going very well, the problem was his room. He was simply out of wall space.

Every inch had become a monument to the support people from small-town Georgia muster when someone needs help. His walls were covered with photographs, homemade cards, drawings and even a basketball goal. An athlete at Crisp County High School, several local sports teams sent signed posters and photos to show support for their hometown boy.

He even got support from rival teams. An oversized photo in his room shows Joseph in his football jersey and reads “Rams Unite in Prayer for Joseph Stokes Cougars #17.” The Rams are from neighboring Worth County. The poster originally adorned the Crisp County field house wall before the teams played a football game on Nov. 6.

That was four days after Joseph, a wide receiver on the Crisp County High School football team, sustained a T-12 incomplete spinal cord injury in an auto accident on his way to school.

“I used not to like living in a small town,” says his mother, Maribeth Slade. “But when I think about the support we’ve had, it chokes me up.”

There have been raffles and fundraisers. A classmate started a GoFundMe page. Others created rubber wristbands (“PrayForStokes #17”), decals, stickers and T-shirts (“#TeamStokes” on the front, “#everySTEPoftheway” on the back). His sister, Elizabeth Stokes, 21, even left her job to help.

San Francisco Giants’ catcher Buster Posey, who is from nearby Leesburg, gave him an autographed bat. Chris Conley, a Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver from Dallas, Ga., gave him an autographed football. Mark Richt, then the University of Georgia football coach, paid a visit.

“It’s crazy,” Joseph says. “I’ve gotten letters from people I don’t know in Tennessee and Texas. I get texts from kids I don’t know.”

Joseph and his family continue to be surprised at the willingness of people to help in their time of need.

“Here’s how far people will go to help,’” Maribeth says. “The lady who cuts Joseph’s hair drove two and a half hours to cut his hair. It’s overwhelming.”

Neurosurgeon Kim Johnston, M.D., operated on Joseph at the Medical Center of Central Georgia in Macon to stabilize his spine. From there, he recommended that Joseph go to Shepherd Center. While in the Macon hospital, Joseph overheard a doctor tell his parents that “the odds were against him walking again,” recalls John Stokes, Joseph's father.

“I told him to use that as motivation and work that much harder," John says.

Like any parent, Maribeth feared the worst for her son.

“But everything was so different when we got to Shepherd Center,” Maribeth says. “Dr. (Anna) Elmers and (nurse practitioner) John Morawski came that first day and said to Joseph, ‘So you play football? What position do you play? How fast do you run?’ They didn’t say ‘played.’ Nothing was past tense. I loved that optimism.”

They found that optimism was part of the culture at Shepherd Center.

“Everything was so bright, and the staff is wonderful – even the guy who picks up his food tray. He always says, ‘What’s up, Joe?’ Or, ‘How ya doin’, Joe?’” Maribeth says.

Joseph has a 3.7 GPA, raises cows and hogs with his stepfather, and is an outfielder on the baseball team. A positive attitude and a healthy dose of motivation have helped Joseph excel during his time at Shepherd Center.

"Joseph has flown through a lot of the stuff here,” says exercise physiologist David Lewis. “The gym is his comfort zone.”

When David asked Joseph, who was learning to stand up again, what wisdom he’d learned at Shepherd, Joseph’s answer was swift.

“Clear your mind of ‘Can’t,’” Joseph says.

Maribeth jokes that Joseph is back to being his “aggravating teenager” self. He races through the halls in his wheelchair, wisecracking and chatting with everyone.

“But the therapists are great,” Maribeth says. “They just roll with it. Every day here is like Christmas.”

Perhaps his therapists take the wisecracking in stride because of his dedication to his rehabilitation.

“He’s a very hard worker, very motivated,” says Ashley Johnson, his physical therapist. “He’s a good one.”

Joseph shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. He’s going home for Christmas, and when he returns, he intends to walk.

“Then, I want to find that doctor in Macon who said the odds were against me walking again and show him I beat them,” Joseph says.

Written by John Christensen
Photos by Louie Favorite

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.