The Recovery Coach
Gratitude and Miracles
Updated: Oct 13, 2021
How one man’s miraculous recovery from a spinal cord injury can help those recovering from addiction and other mental health disorders
by Alison Broderick, NCRC-II, CPS-AD
In our free society, we do what we want to do and go where we want to go. Then suddenly, in an instant, an accident happens and it all stops. You can no longer enjoy the freedoms you once had. That’s the world of spinal cord injury.
There are people you meet throughout the course of your life who make a lasting impact. Difference makers. Maybe it’s something they said that changed your perspective. Perhaps it’s something they did that brightened one of your darkest hours. Or maybe it was the example they set, day in and day out, that provided a real-life demonstration of unconditional love.
Paul and Gail Martin are difference makers.
I met the Martins in 2010, when my husband and I moved into the house we now call home. Paul and Gail live just up the street from us, in a neighborhood in Marietta, Ga., that is quaint, charming and quiet. They bought their home in 1979—the same year in which the neighborhood was built. They are two of a handful of original homeowners; and two of the kindest, most loving people I have ever encountered. Their adoration for each other is unmistakable; their devotion to family is undeniable; and their commitment to their Christian faith is unwavering.
On any given day, one might see Paul jogging in the neighborhood; mowing their lawn; talking with various neighbors; entertaining and laughing with the neighbors’ kids; leading a men’s Bible study every week; sharing stories about his two adult sons, two daughters-in-law, and three grandchildren; or doting on his beautiful bride of 47 years. Always smiling and optimistic, Paul is known for his spontaneous “Praise God!” outbursts while pointing his index finger to the sky.
To know the Martins is to love the Martins.
The Accident that Changed Everything
I have often wondered, at various points in my life, why bad things happen to good people. This very question has swirled around in my mind repeatedly over the last few years when I think of the Martins. On August 23, 2017, Paul endured a tragic accident while vacationing with family in Massachusetts. Says Paul, “It was mid-morning and we decided to visit a beach we had never been to before. I was bodysurfing on a small belly board on Nantucket Island. The waves were rough, and I made a mistake. I picked a bad wave and it collapsed on me.”
It was a perfect storm: The strong under-current and steeply sloped beach caused the wave to break vertically, slamming Paul’s body, headfirst, into the seabed. “I was knocked unconscious,” Paul says, “and by the grace of God, I awakened for a few seconds, spit out the sea water and cried out, ‘God, please help me.’ Then I blacked out again.”
Gail, who was relaxing on the beach, noticed Paul’s board spring up and out of the water. She immediately turned to her son, Chris, and said, “Your dad’s in trouble.” Chris, along with his brother-in-law, Rodney, and a friend named Jason, rushed over to Paul, who was face-down in the water; they moved him onto the beach to save him from drowning. Gail would later describe that horrifying moment to Paul: “It was as if they were pulling a rag doll onto shore.”
Fading in and out of consciousness, Paul heard Rodney yell, “Somebody, call 9-1-1!” before blacking out again. He was taken by ambulance to Nantucket Cottage Hospital, where they administered steroids to reduce the swelling. Shortly thereafter, Paul and Gail were transported by a LifeFlight helicopter to Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), where he was greeted by a team of doctors, nurses, and nurse technicians.
After performing a series of CT scans and MRIs, doctors determined that Paul had suffered a spinal cord injury (SCI) of C5 and C6, located in the upper portion of the cervical spine. These load-bearing vertebrae provide flexibility and support to a majority of the head and neck. The good news – and arguably the best news of all – was that the injury was incomplete, which means the ability of the spinal cord to communicate messages to and from the brain is not completely lost. Individuals with an incomplete injury may recover some function as late as 12-24 months after the accident occurred. On the other hand, those with a complete SCI have full severing of the spinal cord. In those cases, the nerves below the point of injury can no longer work in tandem with the brain, thus resulting in permanent paralysis (examples include Christopher Reeve and Charles Krauthammer).
The chief physician responsible for Paul’s care at MGH recommended a laminectomy, a surgical procedure in which a portion of bone is removed from the spine to relieve pressure in the neck; followed by a spinal fusion, where two or more of the affected vertebrae are joined together into a single unit using supportive metal rods and screws. Paul, who was conscious at the time, inquired about the success rate for a laminectomy with fusion rods. “We’d estimate a 60 percent success rate,” the doctor replied.
Paul glanced over at Gail for reassurance, and then back at the doctor. “Let’s do this,” he said.
Around 5 p.m. on August 23, 2017, the multidisciplinary team from Massachusetts General Hospital’s Orthopedic Spine Center performed a posterior cervical laminectomy and fusion surgery on C3 to C7 of Paul’s spine. Covered in the prayers of friends and family from near and far, Paul and Gail clung to their faith. Seven hours earlier, Paul was playfully fighting waves on a belly board. Now, he was fighting for restoration of his life – for the chance to walk again. At approximately 11 p.m., surgeons completed Paul’s operation. Day 1 of his recovery journey had just begun.
Rehabilitation and Recovery
Over the next 15 days, Paul remained at MGH’s Neuro Recovery ICU, where he was closely monitored by hospital staff. Once his condition had stabilized, Paul was medically transported via a Learjet 35, from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston to Shepherd Center in Atlanta, one of the nation’s top 10 rehabilitation hospitals for SCI patients. Over the next seven weeks, Paul would undergo extensive rehabilitation from some of the nation’s leading experts in SCI recovery.
“Shepherd Center is the best in class. I could not have asked for a better place to go for rehabilitation,” says Paul. He continues, “It is a private, nonprofit organization, which means they place great emphasis on patient- and family-centered care. From nurse technicians to physician assistants, physical and occupational therapists to mental health professionals, Shepherd Center provides excellent staff-to-patient coverage.”
During Paul’s first week at Shepherd Center, Gerald Bilsky, M.D., staff physiatrist for the Spinal Cord Injury Program and Brain Injury Inpatient Rehabilitation Program at Shepherd Center, said, “Paul, with your incomplete C5 and C6 injury, all things are possible. We can’t tell you what or when—every SCI is different. But, all things are possible.”
Paul found immediate comfort in Dr. Bilsky’s words. In Matthew 19:26, one of his favorite Bible verses, Jesus says, “With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.” Paul knew God was speaking directly through Dr. Bilsky that day. It was a powerful moment he will always remember.
Because the signals from Paul’s brain to his spinal cord were not firing, he was without feeling in his legs and hands; he would have to re-learn how to perform everyday tasks that most people take for granted. During this time, Paul used a power wheelchair for mobility. The next seven weeks at Shepherd Center would prove to be intense, but Paul remained vigilant and determined. At the end of each day, he was given assignments to complete during his downtime. The purpose of rehabilitation was not only to strengthen Paul’s body and retrain his brain, but also to equip him and Gail with practical tools and techniques upon their return home.
Paul formed many close friendships with other SCI survivors during his time at Shepherd Center. He encouraged and inspired them to maintain a positive attitude, stay committed to their recovery and, most important, never lose hope. He remains in close contact with many of them today.
On October 24, 2017—exactly two months and one day since the accident happened—Paul and Gail left Shepherd Center and headed home. Paul’s daily routine, which had been managed by a comprehensive team of specialists, would now fall mostly on Gail’s shoulders. The basic needs of an SCI survivor include help with bathing, dressing, feeding, toileting and catheterization, exercise, transportation to and from doctor visits and therapy sessions, and changing positions regularly to prevent bed sores. Paul was determined to walk and use his hands again, in order to lighten the load for Gail. “I knew that as I gained more independence, it would ease the caregiving responsibilities of my sweet, loving wife,” he says.
Thanks to the support of kind neighbors and dear friends, Paul and Gail received blessings that included:
A truck convoy and volunteers to move the existing items in their basement to offsite storage
Assistance in making adjustments in and around their home—including a handicap ramp and bathroom—to enhance accessibility and mobility, as well as to improve Paul’s overall quality of life.
Several months’ worth of meals, as well as a regular cleaning service
Lawn care and shrub care, blowing off leaves, and taking out the trash
Sitting with, and caring for Paul, while Gail took much-needed breaks
Transportation to and from Shepherd Center for outpatient therapy and appointments
Continuing a men’s neighborhood Bible study every week, and helping to facilitate on-site groups at Shepherd Center
Visits and calls, cards in the mail, text messages and emails, and prayers – to offer continuous encouragement and hope
Progress – Not Perfection
The recovery process for an SCI survivor is often gradual, long and unpredictable. First, we must consider the remarkable advancements that have been made over the last several decades. Up until about 50 years ago, few people survived spinal cord injuries. Therefore, those who have survived, even in this day and age, are already well on their road to recovery. SCI patients can achieve improved functionality through rehabilitation hospitals and facilities, thanks to medical research; patient education programs; and advances in physical, occupational, recreational, and speech therapy. What may seem like minimal recovery progress to others, is significant progress to the patient in terms of adapting to physical limitations with training, aids, and equipment, and regaining functionality for daily activities and tasks.
Throughout his journey, Paul has remained steadfast in his faith and is eternally grateful for each new day God gives him. Recovery certainly has not been a cakewalk, but he continues to make remarkable progress – thanks to Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Day Program, as well as their outpatient rehabilitation services. “The following Scripture found in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 helped me to remain hopeful throughout my recovery: ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus,’” Paul says.
Below is a timeline of Paul’s extraordinary journey:
As a neighbor and friend of the Martins, I have witnessed God’s miraculous work in Paul’s life over the last few years. From the power wheelchair and the walker, to walking sticks and walking without aids, I have seen his tremendous recovery in action. Unbeknownst to him, watching his transformation firsthand has helped me to overcome many of my own battles; he is a powerful reminder that we serve a great God who is able to do immeasurably more than we could ask or imagine.
When asked about the key factors of SCI recovery, Paul provided the following list. Not surprisingly, this list aligns beautifully with recovery from addiction and other mental health disorders. I continue to be amazed at Paul’s positive attitude, big smile, and sheer determination to find joy in every moment. While he certainly did not expect such a life-changing accident that rendered him temporarily paralyzed almost four years ago, he most definitely has been blessed by a tremendous recovery that has rendered the rest of us speechless.
5 Essential Factors for Recovery
by Paul Martin
Be positive! The key ingredients for maintaining a positive attitude include:
Don’t dwell on the past.
Don’t worry about the future.
Get through each day, moment by moment, with an attitude of gratitude.
2) FAMILY & FRIENDS
The loving, sacrificial caregiving of my wife has been instrumental to my continuing recovery. Graciously accept the support, encouragement, assistance, and love of your spouse or loved one, your family and your friends. You don’t have to go through this alone.
Have faith in God, through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This has sustained me through my recovery process. Asking for God’s forgiveness, believing in Jesus’ saving grace, and trusting Him as Lord and Savior has not only given me peace in dealing with my injury, but has helped me understand God’s purpose for my life going forward as well. This peace is available to everyone!
Rely on the power of prayer. It’s an amazing thing! Many prayers offered to God for my recovery by my wife, family, neighbors, long-time friends, and church friends have been heard – and answered – by our great God. He can do impossible things!
5) REHAB & THERAPY
I was very fortunate to receive the best available rehabilitation and therapy at Shepherd Center’s inpatient, day, and outpatient programs. Get the best medical, therapeutic rehabilitation care, and/or counseling that is available to you and your loved ones.