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Young Man on a Mission After Rehabilitation for a Spinal Cord Injury

Joseph Stokes of Cordele, Georgia, continues to push through recovery as he graduates high school and heads to college after sustaining a spinal cord injury.

Seventeen-year-old Joseph Stokes of Cordele, Georgia, was on a mission.

It was October 2016, nearly a year after he sustained a T-12 incomplete spinal cord injury in a car crash and eight months after completing rehabilitation in the Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program at Shepherd Center.

He had an appointment at Navicent Health in Macon, Georgia, for a final checkup with Kim Johnston, M.D., the neurosurgeon who stabilized his spine after the accident. But after the appointment, Joseph went looking for another doctor, the one who told Joseph's parents he would probably never walk again.

When he found him, Joseph introduced himself, reminded the doctor of his prediction and proudly demonstrated that he is, indeed, walking again.

“I think he was pretty amazed,” says Maribeth Slade, Joseph’s mother. “He kind of smiled and said he was glad Joseph was doing well, that you never know in these cases what’s going to happen.”

Joseph and his mother also visited the nurses who treated him after the accident. “They were extremely happy,” Maribeth says. “The nurse in the ICU started crying.”

“I felt kinda bad about that,” Joseph says. “I didn’t mean to make her cry.”

When he left Shepherd Center in January 2016, Joseph was told he could expect to make a complete recovery, but that it could take a few years. So, he continues to participate in physical therapy once a week, gets counseling to help adjust to the change in his life and he’s even started jogging.

“Well, it’s just 50 yards, but it feels great,” he says. “I’m getting stronger, but my endurance and balance aren’t as good yet.”

Joseph's car crash and subsequent recovery have been of great interest in south Georgia. He was a popular Crisp County High School student who played football and baseball, along with maintaining a 3.7 grade point average.

When he was injured, word spread rapidly through the county – population: 23,439 – to neighboring communities, triggering a response reminiscent of the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Civic organizations, churches, schools and even students held raffles, sales and fundraisers to raise money. They printed T-shirts, stickers and decals. They created wristbands. A rival high school in neighboring Worth County even created a huge banner and presented it to Crisp County before their annual football game.

“Everyone has been very, very supportive,” Maribeth says. “Anywhere I go, people ask me about Joseph and how he’s doing. Everybody has gone above and beyond to help us out and make sure we’re OK. At senior night for the football team last fall, Kelly Williams, his access case manager at Shepherd Center, and his physical therapist down here gave him a special award, and they talked about how the community stood behind him every step of the way.”

Joseph is so well known, in fact, that he has been invited to tell his story to civic groups. The title of his talk is “Clear Your Mind of Can’t,’” the first thing he was taught by his team of therapists, nurses and physicians at Shepherd Center.

“Everyone knows who he is,” Maribeth says. “He’s spoken to these different organizations, and if they didn’t know before, they know his story now.”

One of the things Joseph tells his audiences is that as a wide receiver on Crisp County’s football team, he had hoped to get a scholarship to play college football. The injury ended that dream.

“He doesn’t like talking about that,” Maribeth says. “He had a hard time with it.”

Nevertheless, Joseph went to all the football games last fall and wore his No. 17 jersey. There is a wonderful photo of him standing on the field before one game while the whole Crisp County team races toward him.

“It was fun going to the games, but it’s hard sometimes,” Joseph says. “I wanted to play, but I learned to live with it. If God wants me to play sports, OK. If not, I’m not going to do it.”

Last spring, he threw out the first pitch at his team’s baseball season, and attended all the games as a team member.

But one of his greatest pleasures is going back to Shepherd Center, which he has done several times. In June 2016, he participated in Project Rollway, a fashion show featuring former patients and benefitting Shepherd Center’s adolescent rehabilitation programs.

“I miss being there,” Joseph says. “I miss doing therapy every day, and the doctors… the therapists… the atmosphere. I miss all the friends I made up there. And especially the attitude. It’s so positive and uplifting. There’s nothing like that in everyday life.”

Joseph graduated from high school on May 26 and has been accepted at Valdosta State University, where he plans to study exercise physiology and continue his recovery.

“I’m not quite normal,” he says, “but I’m getting there.”

In other words, Joseph is still on a mission.

Written by John Christensen

About Shepherd Center

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, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.