Every Seat Has a Story: The Road to Recovery

By: Andy Fuhrmann
Feb 12, 2015 3:30 PM ET

Nuts about Southwest

On February 22, 2013, my life changed forever.  Skiing has always been my outlet, but on that particular day on Jay Peak in Vermont’s Green Mountains, I was in an accident that caused a compression of my spinal column, pinching nerves in my neck. I was instantly paralyzed from the neck down from what we later learned was a C4-C5 incomplete Spinal Cord Injury (SCI).

Since my injury was incomplete, the spinal cord was not fully severed, only damaged. Therefore, I had the potential to gain back much of what I lost. My family and I knew it was crucial for me to receive the absolute best care. About a week after the accident, my parents and I decided on The Shepherd Center, a hospital and research and rehabilitation center in Atlanta specifically for people with spinal cord or brain injury. Within two weeks of receiving care at Shepherd, I was already sitting up and getting around in a wheel chair, and with some assistance, I could even stand up.

Thankfully, Shepherd Center is a part of the Southwest Airlines Medical Transportation Grant Program. Through this program, hospitals and nonprofit medical organizations are eligible to receive complimentary roundtrip travel so patients like me can get the treatment they need. My family and I are especially thankful for the program as the travel benefits allowed my father to balance work at home in Massachusetts while also supporting us in Atlanta on the weekends. I don’t know what my mother or I would have done if it wasn’t for this program. Having my father there was as vital to my recovery as the physical therapy and medical treatment.

I am still nowhere near completely recovered, nor will I ever be; however, compared to recoveries typically made following a SCI as severe as mine, my recovery has been miraculous and extensive. I am convinced that I simply would not have been able to regain the function and strength I have if it wasn’t for the expertise and specialized equipment at Shepherd Center.

Recently, nearly two years after my accident, Southwest provided my family and me the opportunity to travel to Atlanta. I wanted to return to  Shepherd Center to thank all of my therapists, doctors, nurses and aides (and therapy dogs) for the kindness, optimism, and health they gave to me while I was there.

When I first arrived for the visit, the emotions and tears came flooding out of me. All of the moments of fear and doubt and failure and love and strength and triumph returned simultaneously.

So much of my experience there was beautiful. Despite being a traumatic injury hospital, the energy there is so positive and upbeat! The support and love coming from staff and family are endless, and the strength and resilience demonstrated by  patients constantly renews my love and hope for humanity. The most meaningful experience I had there was meeting a new patient whose injury symptoms were eerily similar to mine. I noticed her instantly because I recognized myself in her. We must have talked for an hour, and I believe we both brought each other relief.

I was terrified to return to the Shepherd Center, but my memories of my experience in the hospital had been skewed by the residual trauma and fear from the accident. As soon as I was there again, I was filled with the love and kindness that fuels that place.

The accident that caused my injury was a chaotic moment of chance; however, the support that got me through my recovery was anything but chance. My family, the nurses and therapists, and programs such as Southwest’s Medical Transportation Grant Program have put forth great efforts to selflessly love and care for other people in need. Life is truly beautiful at its core, and I was so relieved to be reminded of that upon my return to Shepherd Center.

The Southwest Airlines Medical Transportation Grant Program provides complimentary, roundtrip tickets to nonprofit hospitals and medical transportation organizations. The Shepherd Center is one of more than 100 hospitals and medical organizations impacted through this program.  In 2015, Southwest Airlines Medical Transportation Grant Program will donate more than $3.2 million in free transportation to patients needing to travel for treatment.