12:38 PM

Social Connections

When 17-year-old Trent Grubbs of Rockford, Ala., arrived at Shepherd Center, he was so depressed by his condition that he wouldn’t talk to anyone or participate in the activities that are part of rehabilitation.

“But,” says Pam Patterson, Trent’s grandmother, “the therapists, counselors and nurses got him to where he’s real outgoing. He talks to everybody.”

Particularly important for Trent – and other Shepherd Center patients – is communicating with family and friends back home using Facebook, text messaging and video chats. In fact, social media have become an essential element in the rehabilitation of Shepherd patients, especially adolescents. For example, soon after Trent sustained an incomplete C-6 to -7 spinal cord injury (SCI) in an auto accident, family and friends set up a Team Trent page on Facebook, and it quickly grew to more than 1,000 friends.

“Team Trent is about challenging yourself beyond your everyday tasks,” wrote Trent’s aunt, April Grubbs Riley, in a post on the page. “Trent is going to have a long road ahead of him, and as family and friends we need to be prepared mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually to lift him up. Until he can walk, we will walk for him.”

“Social media – and especially Facebook – are as daily around here as brushing your teeth,” says Cheryl Linden, a counselor on the SCI program’s adolescent team. “People come to the gym with their iPhone and text people back home and tell them how they’re doing. They might be in the hospital for several weeks or months and lose touch with what’s going on back home, but with this technology, they feel like they’re still connected.”

Facebook and Twitter are not the only social media available to patients. Shepherd offers access to MedGift, a free network that operates like a gift registry. All allow patients, family and friends to post updates on their condition, as well as receive messages, send requests and coordinate things like transportation, meals and the dozens of other issues that must be handled by a family in crisis.

Social media are especially helpful, Cheryl says, because rehabilitating from a catastrophic spinal cord or brain injury is a long, slow process. This technology not only gives patients and their families a way to stay in touch, but it also opens up access to resources they didn’t have before. “It creates a ripple effect,” she says.

For example, when Tanner Hunter, 18, of Leeds, Ala., sustained an incomplete C-4 to -5 SCI in December 2011 while wrestling, family and friends created a Facebook page called Prayers for Tanner Hunter. While he was being treated in Birmingham, his family became concerned at the inability of medical personnel to get him off the ventilator. A Facebook follower read about it and told them about Shepherd Center.

“They told us we had to get him to Shepherd,” says his mother, Christy Hunter. “People we know and people we don’t know have followed his progress and pray for him. People even donated supplies and services to make our home accessible.”

“We have a praise!” Tanner’s grandmother Janice Hunter posted on Facebook in March. “A van has been donated to Tanner by a person or group of people who wish to remain anonymous. It has to be converted to special needs. God is so good. A prayer answered.”

In late May, Tina Bunt McClendon of Ragland, Ala., wrote, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of Tanner where he wasn’t smiling. What an awesome young man. Congrats Tanner :).”

Trent Grubbs, 17, of Rockford, Ala., draws encouragement from communicating with family and friends using Facebook and text messaging.

“That support, really, it’s the biggest help you can get,” Tanner says. “My family and friends have been really great. You couldn’t ask for better friends.”

Trent credits the therapists and counselors at Shepherd Center with having faith in him. “It helped me come so far,” he says. “I never would have made it without them.”

And because their stories are available through the social media, the people who follow them sometimes find their own lives are touched and enriched in ways they could not possibly imagine.

Late one night in early June, a stranger from Freeport, Fla., named Andrea Smith posted on Team Trent: “You don’t know me, but I’ve thought about you and prayed for you every day. Keep up the good work. Thank you for inspiring me to never give up and to just keep trying! You’re awesome!”

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.