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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Monarch Physical Therapy Gift Aids Rehabilitation

By Irvin B. Harrell

When Michael Sheffield rolls into ODU Monarch Physical Therapy clinic on Mondays and Wednesdays at noon, he brings a generous dose of sunshine. Along with it he is sometimes accompanied by mom, dad, friends, caregivers and often by a neighbor who also benefits from the clinic's care. Sheffield is a model of determination and humility.

A paraplegic — injured in an accident in 2016 — with limited use of his upper body, Sheffield clenches his teeth and closes his eyes intermittently as he battles to strengthen is upper body under the care of both professional physical therapists and ODU students in training. Sheffield tempers his drive with an occasional smile and a little humor - but make no mistake of his rigid resolve.

Were it not for his network of friends, family, community and Monarch PT, he says, his injury would have been truly devastating. And he has made it his mission to thank everyone through his dedication to his therapy and by giving back to those invested in his recovery.

"The only way that I initially could think of to pay back all the generosity that I received was to take my rehabilitation as seriously as a person can take it; to put every single ounce of energy I could into it," he said. "And I'm still doing it, but ... the next step in showing my appreciation is to try my best to share that with other people."

As an expression of gratefulness to Monarch PT, Sheffield recently raised $39,000 and donated it to the clinic through Eggleston Services for the purchase of a cutting-edge piece of equipment that helps those with debilitating spinal cord or head injuries. Eggleston provides services for individuals with disabilities in Hampton Roads.

"Words cannot adequately express my deep appreciation to you and your family for your generosity," said Lisa Koperna, the clinic's director.

And it doesn't stop there. Sheffield is planning another fund-raising event this fall for Monarch PT. The details are still being worked out but he envisions something in Norfolk with a scavenger hunt, which proved very popular with a fund-raising event held for him in 2016.

Old Dominion University and Eggleston have planned a reception showcasing the clinic's advancement for treating individuals with neurologic injuries on Sept. 25, at ODU Monarch Physical Therapy.

A Moment that Changed Lives

On a winter night last year in a local martial arts dojo, a Jiu jitsu maneuver changed Sheffield's way of life and the lives of those connected to him.

"We were doing drills, and my partner grabbed my ankles, threw them over my head and fell on me at the same time, and it broke my neck," he says. "It was a freak accident."

Sheffield was taken from The House of Muay Thai to Norfolk General Hospital. A surgeon there called his mother to let her know surgery was imminent and urgent. Bobbi Sheffield then headed for Norfolk from her home in Virginia Beach.

"When I heard what happened, I wasn't able talk to Mike," she said. "I was sad, worried. I told the doctor that I was praying for him as well and to tell Mike that I loved him."

Bobbi called her husband, David — who was in Florida at the time — and called her older son Jeremiah, to let them know what happened. She also called her pastor, who came to the hospital and sat with her and two of Michael's martial arts buddies in a waiting room during the six-hour operation.

"It's a really scary time because you have such high hopes that surgery is going to fix everything and he's going to be OK when he comes out," she said. "But the first day after surgery, they said there was a real good chance that he would have to be put on a ventilator and a feeding tube and of course that's not something you want to hear. We asked 'for how long' and they said it could be forever. That was a difficult time."

Early tests revealed there was a little movement, Bobbi Sheffield said. Incomplete injuries made it more favorable for recovery, but active rehabilitation was the key.

David carries a picture of Michael on his phone, a photo of his son with tubes hooked up to him after the operation. The situation looks dire at best. "I don't show him this," he says. "But this is how bad it was."

After the operation, the family was told that it would be better if Michael was intubated to support his respiration, which might diminish throughout the day, Bobbi Sheffield said. Also complicating things were the periodic fevers Michael experienced.

"They were as high as 107.5 degrees," Michael said.

Michael spent almost a month in Norfolk General before being released. The family frantically searched for a place where he could undergo rehabilitation, but insurance coverage was a recurring issue. A neighbor told them about the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, a world-renowned facility for neurological and neuromuscular research. David liked what he heard but insurance, again, wouldn't cover it.

"We checked out a few other places, but we didn't get a good feeling," David said. "Shepherd kept coming up though." Shepherd wanted $163,000 up front, he added.

Michael's sister Bethany Vaughan started a go-fund-me page, Michael said. "She wrote a letter saying that if someone could give us a loan, we would pay them back," he said.

"I have been reflecting on all the times Michael has asked me to scratch his nose or wipe his tears for him as he lays in the bed unable to do it for himself," she said on her page. "My family and I are humbled by this situation and are asking for your help."

A member of the family's church introduced David to someone among the congregation and "they wrote us a check for $200,000," he said. "We paid it back in six months."

Michael spent 10 weeks at the Shepherd Center and was released, the day before his 30th birthday. During their time in Atlanta, David and Bobbi were taught by the Shepherd staff how to care for Michael upon his release, but they remained fearful.

"We thought we were going to be in Shepherd Center till March and they say he's going to be discharged and you say 'Mike's in a 500 pound chair. How are we going to get him into the house? What are we going to do?'" David said. "It's just a thought that you never thought you'd need to think. There wasn't an easy answer."

The company owned by Bethany's husband pitched in, renovating part of the Sheffield's' house to create an indoor ramp and easy access to Michael. "It was our own Sheffield Center," Bobbi said.

The Road to Recovery Leads to Monarch Physical Therapy

When the Sheffields returned to Virginia Beach, Michael started rehabilitation at Sentara three times a week for about a month. Upon release from Sentara, the family began scouting for other options going forward. Then something special happened. David, a board member of the Princess Anne YMCA, was asked to give the devotional at a board meeting and he shared Michael's story and what the family was up against.

"After the meeting, the YMCA director got me in touch with the lady who was in charge of all of the capital campaigns with the Y in South Hampton Roads," he said. "She told me she knew of another family who had a son with a spinal cord injury and said he was being helped at Old Dominion."

David called Koperna that afternoon and she invited him to bring Michael the next day. "It was just magical," he said. "And then we told our next-door neighbor about it, and Lisa invited her to come too."

Michael raves not only about the help he has received from Monarch PT, but also the progress his next-door neighbor has received. "I knew right away that they would be able to help her," he said. "I thought 'She needs it more than me, and she has nowhere to go.'"

For more than two months, the Sheffields have found a home away from home at Monarch PT, and Michael appears to be getting stronger visit by visit.

"Michael's recuperation is an inspiring testament to the power of love, medicine, and miracles," Koperna said.

His physical and occupational therapy is intermixed with exercises on the special piece of equipment his generosity made possible. Michael says that he is impressed not only with the level of professionalism, but the philosophy of the clinic. In a word, he describes his therapeutic experience as "fantastic."

"Their doors are always open. As a research facility, they want to disprove the model of short-term rehabilitation for spinal cord injuries," he said. "They want to show there should be a push for more care for a longer period."