Injured Athletes Show They Are All Heart
When athletes combine their drive and determination with Shepherd Center’s rehabilitation expertise and intensive approach, great things happen.
Boxing quickly became Devon Gales’ favorite activity during his rehabilitation at Shepherd Center. He and his Spinal Cord Injury Day Program physical therapist, Dan Dale, PT, DPT, both remember their first boxing session together.
A 22-year-old from Baton Rogue, La., the former Southern University wide receiver had sustained a C-6 spinal cord injury (SCI) on Sept. 26, 2015 in a football game at the University of Georgia. The play – and the way both universities rallied around Devon’s family – continues to receive national attention.
About halfway though his five-month inpatient and Day Program stay at Shepherd Center, Devon was itching to put his returning strength to the test. So, Dale challenged Devon to box for two and a half minutes straight, a way to work on his cardio, balance and upper-body strength all at once. Devon eagerly began delivering punch after punch in quick succession to the oversized mitts on Dale’s hands.
“He came out of the gate way too strong, as most athletes do,” Dale says. “After a minute, he was laboring, but I wasn’t going to let him off the hook.”
Devon wasn’t going to ask for it, either. He never said a word and he never stopped punching. His pace slowed, but Devon sweated his way past the 2:30 mark.
“My goal is to get back to being myself, to being the best,” Devon says. “It’s the athlete’s mentality. I wanted to be great as a football player; now I want to be great in here. I want to be better than I was yesterday, every day.”
His mother, Tish Gales, has seen this kind of drive in Devon since his childhood.
“Devon’s going to push himself harder than anyone,” Tish says. “If you ask Devon to do 10 reps of something when he’s working out, he’s going to say, ‘How about 15?’”
By the end of his inpatient stay, Devon had increased both his strength and stamina. And when he boxed, he could punch – hard – for five minutes straight. Now, he continues intensive training in Shepherd Center's Beyond Therapy program.
“There is no was,” Devon says. “I am an athlete. At Shepherd Center, they’re helping me prove that.”
The Perfect Match
Athletes have long thrived at Shepherd Center. Over the past 41 years, Shepherd Center has treated countless patient-athletes from across the country who played high school, college or professional sports.
“Rehabilitation at this stage can be a full-time job, and it requires a full-time commitment,” says Liz Pike, PT, DPT, a physical therapist in Shepherd Center’s SCI Day Program. “Athletes are used to the rigor of the approach we have here, the level of dedication required. They're able to trust the process, they’re coachable and they’re often highly motivated.”
After so many years of working with athletes, Shepherd Center has acquired a reputation as an expert facility in athlete rehabilitation for spinal cord and brain injuries.
In addition to occupational and physical therapy, patients at Shepherd Center have access to the largest team of recreation therapy specialists in the nation, as well as to an adaptive sports program that includes competitive teams, sports and health clinics, and outdoor recreation workshops.
“Shepherd Center puts a lot of time, resources and energy – whatever it takes – into serving each individual patient,” says Anna Choo Elmers, M.D., J.D., staff physiatrist in Shepherd Center’s SCI and Brain Injury Rehabilitation programs. “Programs are activity-based, challenging and customized for each person. So if an athlete, for instance, thinks they’re not getting enough in therapy, we can work as a team to create exactly what they need. There’s no attitude here of: ‘This is our program. Take it or leave it.’”
Devon has often compared his Shepherd Center physical therapists to his football coaches – with a laughing caveat that his therapists might be a little tougher on him.
“But they’re mentors, too,” he says. “They’re always on me, making sure I’m on the right track.”
Of course, keeping Devon on track isn’t too difficult. He’s always found motivation easy to come by, especially as an overlooked 5-foot, 6-inch, 130-pound prep athlete who topped out at 5 feet, 8 inches and 158 pounds in college. But Devon had watched his father play football as a fullback, and he adopted his dad’s hard-nosed personality.
“Proving people wrong is what’s always motivated me,” Devon says. “It’s the same now. The uphill battles are more of a challenge. And I like challenges.”
The same could be said of Vicki Varner, 19, a former softball pitcher at Missouri Valley College who was recently a patient at Shepherd Center.
“It’s that never-quit mentality,” Vicki says. “As soon as my accident happened, the first thing I was upset about was losing my sport. Not even walking. Playing softball and being an athlete had become my identity.”
A Christmas Eve car accident during Vicki’s freshman-year holiday break resulted in her T-11 spinal cord injury. Liz Pike vividly remembers the first day that Vicki entered the SCI Day Program following her inpatient stay at Shepherd Center.
“She said, ‘I’m only staying for two weeks, and here’s what I want to achieve,’” Pike recalls. “So that’s what we did. We customized a schedule that fit her, and she came in with a purpose every day. She was disciplined and driven, and once she’d learned something, we’d check it off the list and move straight on to the next item.”
Most patients in the SCI Day Program do about three hours of work daily with their physical therapists. After her official sessions were over, Vicki would spend extra hours lifting weights in the gym, doing cardio on functional electrical stimulation (FES) bikes and trying new sports like wheelchair basketball and rifle shooting.
“I wanted to pick up every extra therapy and sports opportunity I could,” Vicki says. “I wanted to feel like an athlete again. Becoming more consistent in my abilities and seeing myself improve was so important to me.”
Vicki first discovered she’d be going to Shepherd Center while being treated at a local hospital near her Spotsylvania, Va., hometown. At first, she was scared – not of the grueling rehabilitation work that awaited her – but of the reputation of Shepherd Center and of other athletes who had gone there.
“I kept saying, ‘What if the other patients are better than me?’” she says, laughing. “People had to keep telling me, ‘Paralysis is not a competition!’ I understood, but for me, everything is kind of a competition!”
In the SCI Day Program, Vicki focused on mastering high-level transfers in and out of her wheelchair without the support of a sliding board. Her greatest fear was learning to get on and off the floor independently. “It took some time, but she did it,” Pike says. “Nothing rattles her. She had the mindset that this injury would not redefine her. Life doesn’t stop with a chair; it just rolls a different way.”
“I may not have been the best athlete on the field, but I was determined to always be the one who wanted it the most,” Vicki says. “You fail a lot more often than you succeed in sports, but that’s what made me want to get back out there and succeed. I attacked my work at Shepherd Center the same way.”
Sports also offered a foundation for Chayse Wolf, 19, to approach his physical recovery. Back at Clinton-Massie High School in Clarksville, Ohio, Chayse had played running back and linebacker, and was good enough that he earned a football scholarship to play at Kentucky’s Lindsey Wilson College last fall.
In July 2015, however, shortly after high school graduation, Chayse sustained a T-12 spinal cord injury in an ATV accident. After surgeries to repair his vertebrae and realign his spinal column, Chayse entered Shepherd Center for two months of rehabilitation. Given his advanced fitness level, Shepherd Center clinical staff members were able to intensify Chayse’s physical rehabilitation workouts. They also tried different techniques that he hadn’t encountered before. Chayse welcomed it all.
“Athletes often have a willingness to try something different in their therapy,” says Ashley Kim, MPT, ATC, a physical therapist in Shepherd Center’s SCI Day Program who also has experience as an athletic trainer. “You can get creative. They understand their limitations, but they’re also ready to try and figure out ways to push past them.”
Dr. Elmers jokes that by the end of his first week at Shepherd Center, Chayse had used every weight in the building. Steadily, Chayse learned how to adapt, how to take care of himself, how to function independently. And in the Shepherd Center gym, he discovered wheelchair basketball.
“It was like a switch turned back on,” Chayse says. “I played every chance I got. I could sit in that gym and shoot forever. It felt right. It was like finding my passion again.”
He took to the sport quickly. After his daily 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. regimen of physical and occupational therapy, Chayse would head to the gym. Before long, he was joining in practices with the Shepherd Stealers basketball team, part of Shepherd Center’s nationally known adaptive sports program.
“The great thing about Shepherd Center is that while we’re in here working on mobility, balance and strength-training, the recreation therapy staff is working with him, testing his skill sets and having him try new things,” Kim says. “Basketball grabbed him. It provided inspiration for moving forward. It changed his idea of what’s possible.”
That’s the whole point, really. To help patients of all backgrounds get back to living active, healthy, independent lives – and envisioning new possibilities for the future.
Devon returned to outpatient therapy at Shepherd Center earlier this summer, committed to further improving his upper-body strength and increasing the dexterity in his hands. Devon’s mother, Tish, teases her son that he’s already more independent than he ever was at college.
“For the first time,” she says, “I’m not doing all his laundry, getting his groceries and filling out his paperwork!”
Next on the list: Returning to school at Southern University, where Devon’s former team is ready to welcome him back in whatever role best suits him.
Vicki, too, will be heading back to her sport this coming school year. She transferred closer to home, where she’ll be the student manager for Virginia’s Randolph-Macon College softball team. She’s also helping coach the traveling squad she played with in high school.
Vicki’s picking up new passions, too. She plans to play competitive wheelchair basketball, swimming and shooting – activities she first tried at Shepherd Center. This past spring, she took on new outdoor sports at Shepherd Center’s Adventure Skills Workshop.
“I was really excited to do the water skiing and everything on the water,” Vicki says. “It’s just exciting to do these kinds of things again. Anything that pushes me athletically keeps me going.”
As for Chayse, his wheelchair basketball practices at Shepherd Center paid off. When he returned home to Ohio, he earned a spot on the Columbus Wheelers basketball team. This spring, Chayse met a familiar foe in the D-III National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament when his team faced off against the Shepherd Stealers.
“It was awesome to see all the guys again and to see the coaches who helped me get started in the sport,” he says.
Best of all was the news he had to share. This fall, Chayse is going to college on a sports scholarship after all – as a power forward for the Edinboro University (Pa.) wheelchair basketball team.
“My goal has always been to play sports,” Chayse says. “They’ve been my life because I love competition. After my injury, I didn’t think that would be possible again, but through Shepherd Center I found a new sport to love and a new way to compete. So to have this opportunity now? I feel nothing but blessed.”
Adaptive Sports at Shepherd Center Provide Rewarding Athletic Opportunities for People with Physical Disabilities
Sustaining a spinal cord or brain injury doesn’t have to spell the end of an athletic career. Need proof? Take a look at the gym, pool or fields or pool at Shepherd Center any day of the week.
Today, Shepherd Center sponsors one of the largest adaptive sports programs in North America. Eleven teams now don the Shepherd Center uniform in regional, national and international competitions. They are:
- Shepherd Cyclers (handcycling)
- Shepherd Sharks (swimming)
- Shepherd Shooters (riflery)
- Shepherd Skiers (water skiing)
- Shepherd Sluggers (softball)
- Shepherd Smash (quad rugby)
- Shepherd Spinners (track)
- Shepherd Stealers (basketball)
- Shepherd Strikers (power soccer)
- Shepherd Stringers (bass fishing)
- Shepherd Swords (fencing)
Teams are made up of former patients, metro Atlanta community members and athletes from around the Southeast – and they have captured championships and medals at competitions around the world, including at the Paralympic Games.
“Whether it’s outdoor activities or joining a team, sports can play a huge role in a patient’s recovery, and in getting them into the practice of enjoying an active lifestyle again,” says Matt Edens, sports teams coordinator at Shepherd Center. “It’s not just the sport, either. It’s the peer support, the social interaction and what they can learn about themselves.”
Shepherd Center introduces patients to recreational therapy and sports programs on campus as quickly as possible. Gustavo Duran-Monge, Shepherd Center’s sports specialist, leads sports clinics that allow patients to meet athletes on different teams and try out new sports. Often, the experience of watching someone who has gone through a similarly life-changing injury or illness play a sport can be a breakthrough moment for a patient.
For more information about becoming an athlete, or to sponsor the sports team program, call 404-367-1287 or email Matt Edens.
By Phillip Jordan
Photos by Louie Favorite, Phil Skinner and Dianna Williams
In the media
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 900 inpatients, 575 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year.