COLUMBUS — He could see, even with the chlorinated water stinging his eyes.
He could hear.
His brain was working; “Oh boy, they’re going to think I’m kidding,” he thought of his family. “I remember thinking that until I ran out of air.”
He couldn’t move, as if someone had hit the pause button on his life.
Last September, Greg Puckett suffered a severe spinal cord injury in a swimming pool accident. When he was pulled from the bottom of the pool, he was a quadriplegic.
Doctors initially feared the active father of four never would walk again.
With hard work, the support of scores of family and friends and an enduring faith, he’s proved them wrong.
“I remember my (child’s) hands on my face and water coming off my face but don’t remember anything else,” Greg said recently, sitting with his wife, Raquel, in a conference room at their family business, Memorial Funeral Home in Columbus.
After the intensive care unit at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle, Puckett spent three months at the Shepherd Center, an Atlanta-based center that treats people with spinal cord injuries, acquired brain injuries, Multiple Sclerosis and other neuromuscular illnesses and urological problems.
“When he first went, he couldn’t sit up or anything; he was a complete quadriplegic,” Raquel recalled. “We got him up in a powered wheelchair in the hospital. Then he had rehab from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (each day). He started making progress and they took the power chair away.”
Past row after row of cars in a multilevel parking garage, Greg pushed himself – with his feet – in the wheelchair.
He was glad to be able to do anything and during those days, he became more determined.
“My hands didn’t work,” he said of his condition when he first began using the chair. “My arms weren’t strong enough to push the chair. It was a long process, a long road.
“I told them I wasn’t there on vacation, I wanted to do what I could to get out of there and be on the fast track to getting home. I’d try anything because I wanted to get better. It was very scary being that way, being paralyzed, being dependent on someone to feed you, to bathe you.”
Encouraged by his friends and family – get-well cards and notes adorned every inch of the walls, medical equipment and the windows in his room – he made progress that surpassed his therapists’ goals.
“It was like being a toddler and learning how to walk all over again. I didn’t forget how mentally; my body just forgot,” Greg said of his reintegration into life.
The Pucketts praised the staff at Shepherd and the intensive care nurses and staff at BMH-GT.
“The nurses in ICU were so great and helpful and caring,” Raquel said, Greg nodding in agreement. “Nowhere I’ve been do the nurses compare to here.”
“I just want everybody to know I couldn’t be here today without their help, thoughts and prayers,” Greg said. “And community support lifted me up.”
“Every night different people helped feed him,” Raquel said. “Everybody, the whole town, took care of him. It was unbelievable. Everybody was so giving with everything – their time, abilities, prayer, money, food, everything.
“There were so many people in the intensive care unit lined up and down the hallway,” she continued. “I couldn’t believe how many were there. All those people …”
” … Came to our family’s aid,” Greg finished her sentence.
“(The community support) has been wonderful for me. This whole experience has been very humbling to say the least. That’s the beauty of a small town – people stepping up and aiding when in need.
“Knowing people care keeps you focused on what you need to be doing. I had no idea all these people cared about me. (It told me) God’s got a plan; it’s going to be all right,” Greg said, noting he plans to return to work at the funeral home “at some point.”
FAMILY SHOWS STRENGTH
Family and friends held a benefit last October to help defray medical costs, and the community’s response was overwhelming.
“It’s been very helpful in my continued therapy,” Greg said of the money raised by the event.
“These folks were here for my family and I want to be there for them. I’d like to tell everybody ‘thank you,’ including the staff at the funeral home.”
The accident had a profound effect on the Puckett family in many ways, but none more than in strengthening his faith.
“This whole thing has helped so much with my faith. God and I got a partnership here,” Greg said. “If I’m not working hard, I might not be ready if he wants to throw me a bone. I want to be ready.”
Greg and Raquel have four children – Stacey, 19, a student at Mississippi State University; Ricky, 18, who graduated May 12 from Heritage Academy and plans to attend East Mississippi Community College; Davie Ann, 16, a student at Heritage; and Miller, 11, a Heritage fifth-grader.
“Before this happened, Greg was always the caretaker,” Raquel said. “Miller was always with us and had never been without us.”
“It made them step up and become responsible. It made them grow up and maybe a little sooner than they would have,” Greg said of the couple’s children.
“They were so strong; they didn’t complain,” Raquel said.
“They were absolutely amazing. You know how kids are so resilient, but you never think it’s going to happen (to them). They did it; they did it without fail and they did it well.”
Greg plans to use his experience to help others in a similar situation.
In Atlanta, he shared a room with Jonathan Sobley, a 24-year-old Columbus man who sustained a spinal cord injury in a swimming pool accident at about the same time as Greg’s, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down with limited use of his hands and arms.
Greg has “stayed in communication” with Sobley and has spoken a few times to Frank Imes, a Columbus man who suffered a brain injury more than a year ago. Having seen the healing power of watching others fight back, he plans to continue to try to provide the same inspiration to Sobley and Imes.
“You get freaky,” he said. “You lie in that bed and can’t do anything. It’s easy to slip into Depression. It gives you a sense of hope to hear from someone that’s been there”
“It’s easy to be hopeless,” Raquel said.
“You feel like this is only happening to you and has not happened to anyone else. After a few days, you realize others are going through the same thing. People who can walk … it’s so inspiring, it’s motivating. It makes a big, big difference.”
Though Greg has come a long way, he hasn’t reached the end of the road.
“It was questionable if I would ever walk again because my injury was so high,” he said, after climbing a set of stairs at the funeral home.
“When I started recovering some of my movement, it was inch-by-inch. It became greater, but now it’s slowed back down. It’s hard to see smaller, intricate movements and more difficult to improve upon.
“But last month I couldn’t button my shirt and I did today. If my hands would improve more, it would be OK. I still don’t have feeling yet, but …”
“… It’s coming,” Raquel said.
“I’m doing much better,” Greg said. “I’ve come a long way and got a long way to go. It’s been a wild ride, to say the least.”