March 2, 2004
Quadriplegic experiences therapy from a different perspective at Methodist Rehab
By Lisa Uzzle Gates
Health and Research News Service
JACKSON, Miss.—Scott Davis can remember lying on the bank of the creek that July day, thinking he was just stunned and he would soon begin to feel his legs again. He had made the first dive with no problem. But the second plunge left the 16-year-old lying on the muddy creek bottom unable to move, other than to raise his arm just above the surface of the water. His friends pulled him out and were now standing over him, trying to hold off panic as they focused on his motionless limbs.
“After a few minutes, it just clicked in my mind. I was paralyzed. I told them to call an ambulance,” Davis said.
Davis, who was raised in Ovett, just outside of Hattiesburg, feels at home as he rolls his wheelchair through the halls of Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson. That day on the creek bank is thousands of days behind him, and every day ahead of him.
But today he’s not the patient—he’s the therapist. He is about midway through his 12-week internship in therapeutic recreation, the last requirement of his four-year degree. Today he’s on his way to see a patient, rolling through the same halls that hold strong memories for him.
He and Gladys Hartwell of Jackson, who is recovering from back surgery, are working on a mosaic birdhouse, sitting at a table with their wheelchairs side by side. Hartwell started the project in an art class but is going home the following day, so she and Davis are trying to finish.
She and Davis have more in common than the wheelchairs—Hartwell was a therapeutic recreation specialist for the city of Jackson for 29 years. She has done extensive work with children and adults with special needs and is a foster parent to four kids with special needs.
She said she always loved her job and felt that she could connect with people with disabilities. Now that she is temporarily in a wheelchair, she understands even more. “You never think it’s going to happen to you,” she said. She said she was depressed for a while, but is beginning to work her way back with the help of her medical team and Davis.
“He’s just always smiling. I feel like I’ve known him a long time,” she said. “He watches out for me.”
As a veteran of therapeutic recreation, Hartwell, a Jackson State graduate, knows that Davis will do well in the field. “He’ll do a better job because he’s had that personal experience. I know that when I go back to working with my kids I will be able to do a much better job, because of what I’ve been through, too.”
“I went through all the stages. Denial, believing I would walk again,” Davis remembers 24 years after his injury. He said the physical injury often brings other kinds of changes. “I was very introverted. But after I had been here a while, all that changed. You get to where you want to reclaim as much of your life as possible—you realize you just have to reach out and grab it and hold on to everything,” Davis said. “I knew I was stuck in a bad situation and I didn’t like it, but you have two choices—you can live life to the fullest or you can quit. And that’s about all there is to it.”
So he focused on his rehabilitation. As a high-functioning quadriplegic, he could move his arms, it was his raised arm that likely saved his life the day of the diving accident, but had no control over his fingers. His therapist ordered a splint that would hold his hand and fingers in a position that would allow him to feed himself, but by the time it arrived he had started eating on his own. That was a time when patients spent months at the Jackson hospital. Davis remembers many things about the five-plus months he lived at “the rehab.”
“I grew to love the people here. I locked horns with a few, but I worked hard,” he says, referring to battles of willpower with his therapist, whose name still easily comes to his mind. ”You develop a close relationship with your therapist and the people here.”
His initial focus was on the day-to-day matters of living, but he left the hospital with days of uncertainty ahead of him.
“I had no idea what I was going to do,” he said. He had missed so much school he decided not to return, eventually earning a GED. And, as much as he and his old friends wanted to reconnect, things were different. “Your friends change. You kind of get into this little sub-culture, where you haven’t got to explain things. I just know, ‘He’s in a chair too. He knows what I’m talking about,’” Davis said.
Davis tried his hand at different jobs through the years, working as a disc jockey and with different organizations for people with disabilities, such as Living Independence for Everyone. But nothing really fit. In 1993 he took a shot at forming his own non-profit agency to provide recreational activities for people with disabilities. While it was a good effort, he soon realized he was in over his head. “I just didn’t have the skills to keep it going,” he said. But it was the catalyst that connected him to Dr. Rick Green at the University of Southern Mississippi and it was Green who encouraged him to consider a degree in therapeutic recreation.
“He’s an excellent student and the second-best wheelchair basketball player I know,” Green said, laughing. Green, who is not disabled, and Davis, used to play a lot of wheelchair basketball when they first met 12 years ago. Green is the coordinator of the therapeutic recreation program at Southern and Davis’ professor and mentor.
While Davis may have to work around his disability in some professions, it will surely be an asset in this field. “It’s not going to hurt him,” Green said. “And I think it will open some doors for him, especially if he is willing to move. Green said he’s only had a few students with disabilities, and he hopes to see more go through the program.
The profession includes work in many areas, from patients with acute spinal cord injuries, to working with the elderly to children with developmental disabilities.
Davis said his first goal is to get a job, but he knows where his heart is.
“I desperately want to work with people who have spinal cord injuries,” he said. “It’s that ‘been there, done that.’ I think I can help them face what’s happened to them. To help them understand how important it is to take one day, one challenge, at a time. In just the time I’ve been here, I feel like I’ve been able to help others. And that makes me feel good.”