Woman Follows her Passion after Sustaining a Spinal Cord Injury
After sustaining a spinal cord injury and enduring multiple surgeries, Julia King achieved her goal of completing culinary school.
For many people, college is a time of self-discovery and growth. For Julia King, 25, this took shape in a way she would never have expected.
On October 13, 2013, Julia was in her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, for fall break during her freshman year at the College of Charleston. While spending time with old friends, one friend asked if she wanted to take a slow loop around the cul-de-sac on his motorcycle. As they drove, a car reversing from a parking spot nearly hit them. Julia’s friend took a sharp turn to avoid the car, throwing Julia from the motorcycle. Fortunately, she was wearing a helmet when the crash occurred.
“Wearing the helmet definitely saved my life,” Julia says. “I’m lucky I was with close friends at the time who could call the ambulance and make sure I was taken care of.”
Julia was rushed to Wellstar Atlanta Medical Center for surgery. There she discovered she had sustained an incomplete L-1 spinal cord injury (SCI). The doctors installed an intervertebral fusion cage to allow spinal fusion to occur between her vertebrae, but she still did not have mobility from the waist down.
“I was 18 and just getting my first taste of freedom in college,” Julia says. “All of a sudden, I lost that freedom.”
“I was, admittedly, a rebellious teenager who thought I was invincible and didn’t need help,” Julia says. “It wasn’t until I accepted that I needed help that I was able to realize that my family and everyone at Shepherd Center really cared. My mantra became, ‘Get better, not bitter.’ I felt supported and started making a lot of progress.”
Julia recalls having many “second firsts” during her time at Shepherd Center.
“I have been strangely fortunate to have so many second firsts,” Julia says. “I had my second first wiggling my big toes, standing up and taking steps. My mom took photos and videos of everything, which frustrated me at first, but now I’m grateful to have those big milestones recorded.”
After approximately six weeks, Julia graduated from Shepherd Center the day before Thanksgiving.
“I entered Shepherd trying to wiggle my toes,” Julia says. “By the time I left, I still needed to use my wheelchair, but I could walk on crutches. My rehabilitation wouldn’t have worked without the individualized care I received at Shepherd.”
Julia also participated in the Spinal Cord Injury Day Program.
“The care I received was great,” Julia recalls. “The structure and schedule provided every day combined with my medical team’s support motivated me. They set me up well for coming home.”
Shortly after she left Shepherd, Julia learned that the cage installed during her initial surgery needed to be replaced. Throughout the next seven years, she would endure four additional surgeries to repair and improve the cage around her vertebrae. After her third surgery in March 2012, she was inspired to take another look at her college career and what she wanted to do with her life.
“After my third surgery, I decided that whatever I chose to continue learning in college needed to be something I really loved,” Julia says. “I realized how important good nutrition was to my SCI recovery and started researching cuisine from around the globe.”
Julia’s research led her to find the world cuisine program at the Art Institute of Atlanta and apply to attend. Her family supported her new area of focus.
“My family never told me any doubts they had about me completing this degree due to my physical limitations,” Julia says. “They knew I would need to spend hours standing and moving around to cook, but they just encouraged me. The school did a great job at making accommodations for me too.”
A spinal cord injury, five surgeries and nearly eight years later, Julia achieved the goal she has worked so hard for. In July 2020, she received her Bachelor of Science degree in culinary arts management with a focus in world cuisine from the Art Institute of Atlanta. She also received her certification as an integrative nutrition health coach from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.
“The further I get into cooking, the more I want to learn,” Julia says. “I have so much fun cooking different cuisines from around the world. Now I hope to be able to use my knowledge about holistic nutrition and world cuisine to help others find the type of diet and nutrition that works best for them.”
Since her injury occurred in 2013, Julia has used a wheelchair, crutches and a cane. Now, with continued physical therapy, she can walk without assistance. While she has made progress physically, Julia wants anyone struggling with an SCI to remember to focus on mental health as well as physical health.
“At first, it didn’t feel right to me to reach out to the SCI community because I had made a lot of physical progress, but there were people with complete injuries who had progressed so much farther than me mentally and emotionally,” Julia says. “Physical recovery is easy to focus on, but mental and emotional health are equally as important. Reach out to people who can empathize with you. Just by sharing your insecurities, you may even help someone else in the process.”
Written by Damjana Alverson
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 740 inpatients, nearly 280 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.