The Importance of Never Feeling “Less Than”
Bruce Howerton, DDS, MS, discovers new purpose as an oral and maxillofacial radiologist — and as a man of the land.
Bruce Howerton has two pastures left to clear on the 140-acre property he and his wife Laura live on in Franklinton, North Carolina.
“Once that’s done and the grass comes in,” he says, “our vision of creating a horse farm can come to fruition.”
Right now, a paint horse named Slick and a chestnut named Virginia have free rein over all the rolling hills – along with three dogs, a cat and all the adapted farm equipment Bruce is using to tame the land.
The work has been nonstop in the eight years since the couple bought the property. For Bruce, though, it’s all part of a self-empowerment plan 24 years in the making.
‘The perfect impact’
Throughout his life, Bruce has been athletic and excelled in many sports. As a kid, he particularly loved off-road motorcycling. In his mid-30s, Bruce got into motocross, a demanding, dirt-track motorcycle sport. At the time, he was an endodontist in Asheville, North Carolina. Every Friday after work, he’d go to a track and practice. One Friday, in 1996, following his 37th birthday, Bruce’s bike lifted into the air off a jump – only to find another rider had parked his bike in the landing area.
“I went over the handlebars, closed my eyes and felt the pinch in my spine when I hit the ground,” Bruce recalls. “It was just the perfect impact. Everything changed in a matter of seconds.”
Bruce sustained a C-5-to-C-6 spinal cord injury with no motor function below his chest and limited use of his arms and hands. He was initially treated at Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, but pneumonia complicated his recovery. When Bruce reached Shepherd Center a couple of weeks later, he was still using a ventilator to breathe. As he improved during his three-month stay at the Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program, Bruce committed to his occupational and physical therapy. And he started to see a way forward thanks to the outings required by Shepherd Center.
“That’s what I remember the most,” Bruce says, “events where they make you get out into the world again. We went to an Atlanta Hawks game and to the World of Coca-Cola museum. I knew I needed to do things like that, but you’re so wiped out and daunted by it at the time. It was good to have that push.”
Discovering new passions
Bruce’s transition home wasn’t easy. During that first year, his marriage ended and his three sons lived with his ex-wife. Bruce also struggled with the knowledge that he couldn’t practice dentistry as he had before.
He decided to act on what he could control. For Bruce, that meant using a manual wheelchair instead of a power wheelchair. To better propel himself in his chair, Bruce designed his own gloves. Then he and his mother Emma turned that design into reality. Emma purchased a used industrial sewing machine. Bruce sourced rubber for the gloves from a rubber gasket company he’d once visited for motocross-related equipment. The gloves proved so helpful that they started their own company, Gloves for Life. For many years, Emma manufactured and sold gloves to people with quadriplegia all over the world. She eventually sold the company to another spinal cord injury survivor.
In 1999, as Gloves for Life was getting started, Bruce entered a three-year graduate program for oral and maxillofacial radiology at the University of North Carolina. It was a new specialty at the time. His career change came with a bonus. On campus one day, a dental hygiene professor named Laura came to Bruce for some multimedia advice. The conversation sparked a connection. The two have now been married for 17 years.
“We’re a great team,” Bruce says.
After graduating, Bruce opened his own private practice in Raleigh. It took time to build his business. “It didn’t come to me. I had to go get it,” Bruce says. “I got an accessible van, loaded in a screen and a laptop, and drove all over the state talking to dentists about how an oral and maxillofacial radiologist could be a valuable resource for both general and specialty practices.”
For 15 years now, Bruce’s practice, Carolina OMF Imaging, has flourished. Today, he works from his Franklinton home, where he interprets data from CT scans that are sent to him by dentists in North Carolina and around the country. He’s also become an expert in the machines used for this specialized field of radiology. The manufacturers have sent Bruce and Laura traveling nationwide to give speeches and educate others on how to use the technology.
“It only takes a minute to feel like you’re ‘less than’ when you’re a quad in a chair,” Bruce says. “It’s difficult to maintain confidence. But once you find something that you can do just like anyone else – or better – it can make you feel like you did before. It’s so important not to feel ‘less than.’”
Seeing Bruce in action on the Howertons’ property is a testament to the power of self-belief and ingenuity. You’ll often see him mowing for hours on a zero-turn mower, using multiple attachments on a tractor, or clearing land in an adapted track loader or excavator. And he carves out time most days for exercise – riding the hills, alongside his dogs, in an off-road mountain handcycle.
“It’s all stuff I can do on my own, and I’m thankful for that,” Bruce says. “Two things have been crucial – faith and support that comes from others.”
He hopes all this can serve as an inspiration for others. In fact, Bruce has a standing invitation for anyone who’s gone through a life-altering injury and is struggling to adapt.
“Come on by for a visit and see what I’m doing,” he says. “This is just one way to live life, but I’m living as normal as anyone else. I just want to show folks that even if you’ve had an injury like this, there’re still so many freeing things you can do.”
Written by Phillip Jordan
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, multiple amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. Ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top 10 hospitals for rehabilitation and the best in the Southeast, Shepherd Center treats more than 850 inpatients and 7,600 outpatients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.