Two Families, Two Catastrophic Injuries Each
Former Shepherd Center patients and their families are learning to cope and move on after double tragedies.
Most of the time mothers just know, but Karen Masters didn’t know when she sent a text message to her son asking when he’d be home. Surely, it was him when the phone ran minutes later. It wasn’t.
A passerby found Ben Masters after the teen drove off a rural road near the family’s northwest Georgia home on Aug. 20, 2011. More than one life has changed since Ben, now 18, sustained an incomplete C-7 spinal cord injury (SCI) that night, and lives changed again when his brother, David Masters, 21, sustained a severe brain injury when thrown from a pickup truck on May 6, 2012.
Like their sons, Karen and Rob Masters and their 14-year-old daughter now lead different lives. They couldn’t have known in advance how this kind of accident – let alone two of them – can change so many roles. The family’s time spent at the Shepherd Center has helped them evolve.
“With Benjamin, it was like having a 16-year-old infant at first because I was doing everything for him,” Karen recalls. “As the infant grows, he becomes more independent. Shepherd did a great job of preparing me for that transition.”
“Transition” is a great word, and Erical Barnes also lived it twice.
Soon after she found her 16-year-old son, Vernon Lundy, thrown from an SUV and lying in brush just off a rural road near their east-central Georgia home, she had a feeling life would be changing.
“The first thing he said was, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Momma,’” Erical recalls. “Then he said he couldn’t feel his legs.” Vernon had sustained a complete T-9 to 10 SCI; he was paralyzed from about the waist down. That was May 20, 2012.
By June 21, Erical knew better about how life would change.
“Thirty one days after Vernon was injured, I get a phone call that my other son was in an accident,” Erical recalls. “The first thing I said on the phone was, ‘See if he can feel his legs.’ We were in Vernon’s room at Shepherd Center, getting ready to take his sister out for her birthday. ”
Jaiylon Lundy, 18, sustained a complete T-8 SCI in an accident that happened when he tried to pass a logging truck in Hancock County. He is paralyzed from about the chest down.
This is the story of four young men, a mysterious mistake made driving home, a drunk driver, a deer at road’s edge, a logging truck, many people pitching in to help and questions that don’t produce perfect answers.
Like, how do you explain all this?
The Lundys were not wearing seat belts, and Ben was. Vernon was thrown from his vehicle, Jaiylon was not. Jaiylon’s un-belted passenger was thrown, and although he broke some vertebrae, he did not sustain a spinal cord injury. He walks. Ben, who has quadriplegia, and Vernon and Jaiylon, who have paraplegia, are in wheelchairs.
“You just never know what the next day is going to bring,” Erical says. “Why would you be feeling sorry? It’s not going to change anything.”
Mostly, this is also about transitions like Karen Masters described. Changes continue to this day, but the Lundy boys and the Masters, have not been stopped.
Vernon and Jaiylon have returned to Hancock Central High School in manual wheelchairs as a sophomore and a senior. David Masters has returned to Shorter University in Rome as a junior. Ben is a senior at Coosa High School near Rome, and he’s long been back to work at a fast food restaurant, as well.
Ben recently regained some movement in his left thumb and can transfer himself from his wheelchair to the hospital bed in his home. “At first, I could barely move my arms. They were very, very weak,” he says. “My left side is definitely stronger. I am left-handed.”
You ought to see Ben work the cash register at his job on Sundays. “I enjoy that,” he says with a big grin. “I really do.”
There Is No Perfect Plan
You won’t find an ace formula for all families to cope with spinal cord injury (SCI) or severe brain injury. Keeping faith, however, seems a great idea when you have a couple children in manual wheelchairs.
Erical Barnes, 40, plows ahead while parenting largely on her own. Don’t look for her head to hang. She returned to work in early September as a rural postal carrier. Her daily route is 125 miles in Hancock County.
“I’m more or less like, it’s happened for a reason. I don’t know that reason,” Erical says. “I have always raised the kids, five kids…went to work, done whatever I needed to do, and it’s not going to change. We’ve got to get up and still get to moving.”
Help is required. The Lundys have an older brother in college and two younger sisters.
Erical’s father, a contractor, is adapting the doorways and a bathroom for his grandsons in the Lundy home. Her mother helps drive her grandsons to school because both wheelchairs will not fit in the same vehicle.
Fundraisers in and around Sparta have helped pay some construction costs, and a local church helped build a ramp up to the house. That, Erical says, is a sign of God’s love.
Her insurance through the U.S. Postal Service has been gracious, but there are still bills like the $17,000 or so balance for Vernon’s air ambulance flight to the hospital. Uncertainty remains about Jaiylon’s air ambulance bill.
Similarly, attitudes are not always measured out evenly.
As Vernon works his way around school in his wheelchair, he is as likely as not to roll over a classmate’s toes on purpose. The sophomore jokes around a lot. Jaiylon, a senior who was a three-year starting cornerback and wide receiver on the school’s football team, is subdued.
“I think Vernon’s outlook is: ‘We’re the same people; our legs are just not the same,’” says Hancock Central football coach Zachery Harris. “I think Jaiylon is moving toward that. Vernon is moving a little quicker.”
Vernon was turned and yelling out the window that fateful day as he drove past a friend’s house. Then, when he looked ahead, he saw a deer. He swerved. Much changed.
This young man is not, however, one to mope.
“Maybe when I’m about to go to bed, I’ll wonder why it had to happen, but I don’t get real emotional because I know God has a plan for me,” Vernon says. “I’ve always been the kind of person who likes to have fun, but my brother has changed a lot. I don’t think he likes people to see him like that.”
Jaiylon was on the sidelines, in jersey, for football games this past fall. “I wish I could be out there [on the football field].” He doesn’t say much more.
Vernon participated in the driving rehabilitation program at Shepherd Center to learn to drive using hand controls. Jaiylon has shown no interest.
Where before Vernon wanted to go to the NFL, he now wants to be a physical therapist, “and help other people, have my own gym and let people come work out,” he says.
Jaiylon’s says: “Before I got hurt, I was going to the Air Force. I wanted to be an engineer, mechanical. I don’t know what I’m going to do now. I just like to be to myself now.”
Sometimes, Erical doesn’t know, either. Yet she is certain of this: Her boys can chase many of the same dreams as before. She keeps telling them: “This doesn’t change it. You can still do what you want to do. I talk to Jaiylon. He tells me I repeat stuff.”
The Masters have three rescue dogs at their home outside of Rome. One of them, Daisy, limps, though, with three legs down and one up as if to shake paw-to-hand.
Rob Masters, a trust officer at River City Bank in Rome, says Daisy healed long ago after being hit by a car shortly after Ben’s accident, but she almost always favors that leg – until there is a varmint to chase. Then, Daisy hauls as she so often did with Ben in the field across from the Masters’ home.
Whether she’s channeling Ben or not, Daisy is an example of the unexplainable.
Rob, and Karen, both 47, have more than one tale like that.
Ben was on his way home from a friend’s house one Saturday night, the evening after he started his first varsity football game, when his mother took that call.
There were no other vehicles involved. Ben had no passengers. When found, he was still belted in, air bags having deployed. He told the passer-by his mother’s phone number. His cell phone was in a bag in the back seat. No alcohol or drugs were involved.
Rob says, “We may never really know what happened.”
As with the Lundys, doctors stabilized Ben’s spine. The next day, hundreds of people gathered at the Coosa High stadium to pray for Ben, a strapping lad who the night before his accident had started in his first varsity football game. The prior spring, he advanced to the state wrestling meet at 189 pounds.
Hundreds, perhaps more, T-shirts and stickers have since been sold for Ben and David, and there have been other fundraisers. Enough money was raised to buy Ben a $17,000 functional electrical stimulation (FES) cycle that insurance would not cover. “It helps with circulation, muscle tone, elasticity,” Ben says.“It’s great.”
Karen says of the donations, “That’s just love.”
The brothers completed rehabilitation at Shepherd Center.
There has been more. One of Rob’s high school classmates, contractor Joey Smith, combined what had been two bedrooms into one in the Masters home, and enlarged and equipped an adjacent bathroom to accommodate Ben. He did the work at cost, or less, as he was able to get several suppliers to donate materials.
The high school has installed a special door, and a para-professional is provided by the Floyd County School System to assist Ben in class. He does quite a bit of work on an iPad. He returned to school in February 2012 of his junior year, about six months after his accident. He plans to graduate this spring, and then pursue a chemical or biomedical engineering degree at Georgia Tech or Southern Polytechnic University.
Ben remains a dreamer and a charmer. He’s handsome in a Channing Tatum sort of way. In fall 2011, classmates, teachers and parents traveled en masse to Shepherd Center to decorate his room for homecoming – complete with a disco ball. This past fall, he attended the real thing in a wheelchair.
He may not be as quick as before, but his functionality has grown so that on occasions Ben has practically ordered his mother to back off and adjust her role again. With both a motorized and a manual wheelchair, he favors the manual chair – not that he always has the option of using it. Fatigue comes into play.
“Everybody wants to get in a manual chair, be independent, do things on their own. That’s where I’m getting,” Ben says. “The first thing I relearned was to eat by myself. It was gradual, a couple weeks, three or four weeks before I could actually feed myself a whole meal without any special equipment.
“Then, grooming skills, brushing teeth, bathing, shaving. I have a shower chair. Most of the time, I can get in the shower on my own. Getting dressed on my own. . . probably in January (2012) was the first time I could put on a pair of jeans all by myself.”
There have been setbacks. Ben has dealt with a couple of staph infections and additional surgeries.
David’s recovery has been steadier.
His accident occurred in Gulf Shores, Ala., where he and schoolmates were celebrating the end of a Shorter school year. The Masters note that in Alabama – unlike Georgia – it is not illegal to ride in the bed of a truck, not that David is likely to do that again.
He doesn’t remember a driver plowing into the truck. Friends and family have told him the driver tested drunk. A few boys were sent flying. One of them had some serious road rash. David’s head became landing gear, but the Masters didn’t know at first how seriously he was injured.
“We had kids who called us, and we thought maybe David had a bad concussion, that he’d be in the hospital a few days,” Rob says.
David’s brain was swelling. After being transported to Baptist Hospital in Pensacola, he spent days in a medically induced coma, and his skullcap was removed to relieve pressure.
He came around, slowly. Damage to the left side of his brain chiefly affected his speech and verbal processing skills. Whether reading, listening or speaking, more work is required now, although David says, “I’ve always been horrible at spelling.”
While continuing speech therapy in Rome, David returned to Shorter this past fall. He’s taking two classes toward an accounting degree. Like Ben, he was a fine high school athlete. He played baseball and football, where he started at quarterback as a senior.
“Who was player of the game for the Temple game?” he asked his family aloud, grinning somewhat like a Cheshire cat because he well knew the answer.
The early days after doctors brought him out of the coma were disconcerting. When David became aware of his missing skull, he repeatedly asked about, “my bark,” as if he were a tree. For a while he referred to his omnipresent grandfather, Johnny Mills, either by his name or as, “that old man.”
Eventually, after considerable cognitive reconditioning and therapy in Pensacola and then at Shepherd, “Johnny called me and said, ‘Guess what?’” recalls the boys’ grandmother, Ellen Mills. “He called me, ‘Paw Paw!’”
The cognitive work is ongoing – sometimes even at home.
When the conversation turns to how his mother’s co-workers covered for her as she missed several months in her job as a third grade teacher at Alto Park Elementary, Karen asks David if he can remember the name of the principal at her school.
There is a pause. “Uh. . . Hamilton?” David’s answer nearly rhymes with the correct one.
“No,” Karen says. “It is Dr. Anderson.”
David is lightning quick with a retort. “Well, that’s because it’s some dude,” he says. Then, his eyes twinkle, and the Cheshire cat returns as he says, “If it was a cute girl, I’d remember.”
The Masters may not be whole relative to their former selves. But they’re far from left in pieces. The Masters are rising.
In late September 2012, David passed all the tests necessary to drive again. So, there he was the other day, standing face-to-face with his father. “Can I have a few bucks,” he says, “and the keys to your car?” Rob Masters handed the keys to a smiling son who has a leg up on a new life.
“We’ve always tried to let our kids be independent,” Rob says. “We’ve tried not to thrust ourselves into the middle of everything they’re doing. That still continues. I hate the phrase, ‘It is what is is,’ but. . . it is. You don’t get a reset button. You’ve got to move on.”
Written by Matt Winkeljohn
Photography by Louie Favorite
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.