Spinal Cord Injuries Lead to Shared Dreams
Inspired by their time at Shepherd Center, two former patients are now doctors of physical medicine and rehabilitation.
Woody Morgan and Hammad Aslam met in 2009, in Athens, Georgia. Woody was a senior at the University of Georgia. Hammad had just graduated. The pair quickly bonded over a shared dream of becoming physiatrists – doctors specializing in spinal cord injury (SCI) medicine – working to help patients with spinal cord injuries regain their functional ability and quality of life.
Professional pursuits and a common alma mater are not all that has kept these two bonded through nearly 10 years of medical school, residencies and fellowships crisscrossing the nation. Woody and Hammad also each know what it’s like on the other side of the doctor-patient equation.
In 2008, Woody – then a sophomore at UGA – waded into the Gulf of Mexico. He handed his sunglasses to a friend, dove into a cresting wave and didn’t return to consciousness until the next day, in the ICU at Sacred Heart Hospital, in Pensacola, Florida. His dive into what turned out to be very shallow water resulted in a paralyzing incomplete cervical-5 to -6 spinal cord injury. A week after his injury, Woody was at Shepherd Center.
A year later, Hammad and his family were returning home from a visit to his future medical school when they were involved in a car crash. Hammad sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and was paralyzed from the chest down due to a complete thoracic-2 spinal cord injury. He was initially treated at the Augusta University Medical Center, and regained consciousness two weeks later at Shepherd Center.
A mutual friend from UGA introduced the two men not long after Hammad began medical school. For almost a decade now, the duo has stayed in steady contact as they’ve pursued different paths to their mutual calling. Today, Woody Morgan, M.D., is a fourth-year physical medicine and rehabilitation resident at Harvard Medical School’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. Hammad Aslam, M.D., is finishing his post-residency fellowship in spinal cord injury medicine at Stanford University in northern California.
“No matter where we’ve been, we’ve texted, emailed, connected on social media, talked on the phone,” Woody says. “We’ve given some needed pick-me-ups to each other over the years.”
Along the way, they also realized how pivotal their time proved to be at Shepherd Center.
Before his injury, Woody planned to study orthopedics and sports medicine. Hammad was considering pediatrics or neurology. Both changed course after working with their physiatrists at Shepherd Center.
Hammad, who progressed quickly from his TBI, remembers a nurse explaining why his attending physicians — Brock Bowman, M.D., associate medical director at Shepherd Center, and John Lin, M.D., medical director of the Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program — were called physiatrists.
“I had no idea what physiatry was then,” he says. “But I started observing how they interacted with me, what questions they asked, the comprehensive care they provided. I loved how they formed relationships with their patients. The wheels definitely started turning in my head.”
Dr. Lin, in particular, inspired both young men. He also has paralysis and uses a wheelchair due to an aneurysm-like condition known as epidural arteriovenous malformation. He also was a patient at Shepherd Center nearly two decades ago.
“Just seeing Dr. Lin doing his job was big,” Woody says. “He’s a different injury level than the two of us, but watching how he made things work, you realize you’re not the first; you’re not reinventing the wheel. You saw what was possible.”
Watching Dr. Lin use creative solutions to accommodate his abilities also prepared Woody and Hammad for the two-step dance they’d have to learn in med school. As Woody puts it: “First, we had to learn the textbook way of doing something. Then, we had to figure out how to adapt that approach so that it could work for us.”
Hammad, for example, never regained function in terms of movement or sensation after his injury, and doesn’t have abdominal control or stability in his core to help him stay upright. So, to deliver an ultrasound-guided injection in a patient’s shoulder, for instance, Hammad uses a standing wheelchair with a chest strap to hold him steady.
“I’d fall down without it,” he says. “But with it, I can hold the probe in one hand and the needle in the other without worrying about my balance. Everything requires more planning to execute, but you just figure it out. I’ve learned there’s always a way to get things done.”
Of course, being in a wheelchair also has its advantages when working with patients who have spinal cord injuries.
“We go into a room and we have street cred right away,” Woody says. “It can help you connect quicker, can mean a little something extra with patients sometimes, knowing that you’ve been where they are.”
Woody and Hammad have returned often to Shepherd Center, both as peer supporters and also as students. As he prepared to apply to medical schools, Woody shadowed Anna Choo Elmers, M.D., staff physiatrist at Shepherd Center, to observe her day-to-day routine. Hammad completed one of his physiatry rotations at Shepherd Center, with Dr. Lin’s supervision.
“It was awesome seeing him interact with patients,” Hammad says. “They’re not just names in a chart; they’re friends to him. That’s a lesson I’ve tried to take with me: To see each patient, not as a name on a chart, but as a holistic person with needs, conflicts, and social and psychological issues that all play a part in their health.”
Hammad and Woody both label that relational, patient-centric focus as a point of distinction throughout Shepherd Center.
“Shepherd Center is very unique in that it’s such an incredibly happy and uplifting place to get such comprehensive team care,” Hammad says. “It’s just the attitude everyone has, from the directors on to the doctors, nurses, therapists, assistants, facilities staff. Everyone’s so positive. They make you feel like you’re going to make it. That, no matter what, ‘there’s a next step and we’re going to show you how to take it.’”
Woody remembers public outings as a patient – such as going to an Atlanta Braves game – that helped him learn to navigate the outside world again, and also to bond with his patients and staff members.
“It’s a sense of community they build,” he says. “They understand that patients still have their same dreams and wants out of life. As a physician, you don’t want to discourage. You want to help patients adapt and facilitate ways for patients to make their goals possible. You want to facilitate hope.”
In January 2019, Hammad and his wife Zainab Alwan welcomed their first child to the world, a baby boy named Laith. Hammad is also interviewing for full-time physiatry positions, while Woody will soon begin his fellowship in SCI medicine at Craig Hospital in Denver.
“Seeing where we each are now compared to where we were when we first met,” Hammad begins, and then exhales, letting the thought drift, unfinished.
“It’s been special,” Woody says. “We’ve seen each other at conferences through the years, as med students and residents, even shared accessible hotel rooms together.
“Now, the next time we see each other at a conference, we’ll be colleagues.”
Hammad Aslam’s route to his current Stanford University fellowship was preceded by medical school at the Augusta University | University of Georgia Medical Partnership and a residency at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Woody Morgan graduated from Tulane University’s School of Medicine, completed a year of internal medicine at Ochsner Medical Center in Louisiana, and then began his current residency at Harvard Medical School’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.
Written by Phillip Jordan
Photos courtesy of Hammad Aslam and Woody Morgan
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.