ATLANTA - At 55, Val Schaff is a father, husband, high school math teacher and, now, a spinal cord injury survivor.
Schaff says, "I had an experience where my life changed in a split-second. And it happens to almost everybody here."
May 28th, just after his Louisiana high school let out for the summer, Schaff was boogie-boarding with his three kids on a Santa Rosa Island beach, when a wave slammed him, head-first, into the sandy bottom below.
Schaff says, "I felt my neck pop, and I thought, ‘This is it.’ I drowned. And, then I washed up between a critical care nurse and a trauma doctor."
That trauma doctor what the Director of Trauma at Vanderbilt Medical Center, who happened to be vacationing with his family on the same beach.
Two and half months later, Schaff is here in Atlanta at Shepherd Center, talking with James Shepherd, whose own story is eerily similar to his. James Shepherd says new patients often ask him how he got injured.
With Val, he says, "We started talking about (how) your life was all laid out, and you had this plan. And, then you took this hard turn."
For Shepherd, that turn came at 22. Fresh out of UGA, he was backpacking around the world. In Brazil, he went bodysurfing in the waves. He, too, was slammed into the sand below. Shepherd remembers the feeling of helplessness, of not being about to move his paralyzed body.
Pinned on the ocean surface, Shepherd says, “You wait for the pressure of the wave to go over, and you try to kick off the bottom. And your feet don't move. And the next wave goes over, and you try to push with your hands, and your hands don't move."
Shepherd spent five weeks in an intensive care unit in Brazil, then five months in a Colorado rehabilitation center.
There was nowhere for a spinal cord injury survivor to go for rehabilitation in the South. Most people didn’t survive an injury like he had. Shepherd says he had no idea how he would rebuild his body and his life.
He says, “It's ‘What can you hold onto, that you can still do?’ Because your first thought is, ‘How will life go on?’ And that's just an honest answer: ‘How am I going to do it?’"
That personal crossroads – and the lack of available care in the region - inspired James and his parents, Harold and Alana Shepherd, to raise the money to build this hospital. When Shepherd Center opened its doors in 1975, it had just six patient beds. Now it has 152, including a ten-bed ICU. It takes in almost 1,000 in-patients a year, and treats more than 6,500. It's become the place in Atlanta where people come from all over the country to start over.
Now, it's Val Shaff’s turn. When he arrived here two and a half months ago, he says, he could barely lift hands up off his chest. Walking looked out of the question.
He says, "I'm thinking to myself, ‘I'm not ever going to get any better.’”
But, little by little, Val started growing stronger. His spinal cord injury is “incomplete,” which means the cord is damaged but not severed. So, he’s been able to get up and walk. He recently walked 30 minutes on a treadmill.
He still needs a walker, but says, “I can live with this. If I have to walk the rest of my life with a walker, that's fine! I'm walking!"
And Val says Shepherd Center not only embraces him and his Joni, but their three children, ages 12-17. They were here with their parents all summer, and Val says they inspired him to really push himself.
James Shepherd says they work hard to embrace and support each patient’s family during the recovery process.
He says, “It’s not just an injury to you, it’s a family injury."
Shepherd says it's been an amazing journey for him, one he never could have imagined when he was paralyzed at 22.
"Forty years of incredibly stories, incredible dreams and incredible people.” he says. “And I don't think that, had my injury never happened, that I would've ever been able to touch people like that."
Shepherd Center will celebrate its 40th birthday on August 18, 2015.
For more information, visit shepherdcenter.org.