Thomas “Jay” Harn is just 16, but he’s had a passion for hunting since he was barely kindergarten age.
On Nov. 5, the Banks County High School student was doing what he loved best, deer hunting in Middle Georgia’s Hancock County.
Then one misstep changed his life forever. Leaning out of a deer stand, he somehow fell forward, somersaulted in the air and landed on his back more than 10 feet below.
“At first I was so stunned I didn’t know what happened,” he said. “But right away I could tell that I couldn’t feel my legs.”
Harn was rushed to Children’s Hospital in Macon, where tests confirmed his back was broken at the T12-L1 Vertebrae, near his waistline. Because of spinal cord damage, signals from the lower half of his body could no longer reach his brain.
Surgeons inserted rods and pins to stabilize his spine, but the paralysis could not be reversed. Harn had to face the likelihood of spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
He was transferred to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, one of the country’s top facilities for treatment of brain and spinal cord injuries.
“The first week at Shepherd was really hard, but then it got a lot better,” he said. “I realized I can’t just lay in this bed my whole life. I have to go back to being the person I was before.”
Mentally he was the same, but physically he was entering a whole new world.
Harn went through two months of Rehabilitation to learn an array of new skills. How to maneuver a wheelchair and transfer in and out of it. How to dress and bathe himself. How to use a urinary Catheter to empty his bladder every six hours.
It may seem strange for a 16-year-old to have to learn such things. But Harn said it helped to see so many peers in the same predicament.
“There were a bunch of people at Shepherd who were my age,” he said.
Dr. John Lin, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Shepherd, said Harn is a typical patient.
“About 80 percent of spinal cord injuries happen in males, and late teens to early 20s is the prime age,” he said. “The majority are injured in car wrecks, followed by falls, violence such as gunshots, and sports, especially diving.”
Lin said in 56 percent of cases, the spinal cord is severed at the neck, leaving the patient a quadraplegic with little control over the upper body.
In that sense, Harn, a 6-foot football player, is fortunate. He has full use of his arms. “I was pretty strong before I got hurt, which has helped tremendously,” he said.
He’s also heartened by the wealth of opportunities available to paraplegics. “There’s so much that people in wheelchairs can do, like Paralympic sports, skiing, basketball,” he said.
For now, he’s using a loaner wheelchair while waiting for his personal model to be delivered. Made of titanium, it will be small, sleek, easy to maneuver.
Lin, who himself became a Paraplegic at age 21, said technology has greatly expanded horizons for the disabled. “Wheelchairs probably weigh half of what they did 20 years ago,” he said.
Still, there are places a wheelchair just can’t go. And one of those was the single-wide mobile home where Harn, his parents and 18-year-old brother had been living.
So when Harn was discharged from the Shepherd Center on Jan. 10, he moved into the home of one of his best friends, Seth Cape.
“Seth’s dad is a builder, and they plan to build a (handicap-accessible) house on 10 acres my grandparents deeded to me,” Harn said.
Transportation was another issue. At the time of his injury, Harn had his learner’s permit and was scheduled to take his driver’s license test Dec. 18. Now, he’s waiting to get a truck modified with hand controls.
With so many changes going on in his life, he still had to keep up with his school work. Friday, he returned to Banks County High for the first time since the accident.
Though Harn confessed to being “a little nervous,” he didn’t think it would take long to adjust. “I have lots of friends,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal (being in a wheelchair now).”
He said friends and family constantly came to see him while he was at Shepherd. Members of his church, Mountain View Baptist in Baldwin, also were supportive. And he made many new friends among the Shepherd patients and staff.
“I never had any really depressing days, because I always had someone to talk to,” he said.
Harn hasn’t had time to consider his long-term future. “(Before the accident) I was thinking about joining the armed forces in order to pay for college, and then maybe being an engineer,” he said.
Though the military is no longer an option, many career possibilities still are open to him. “I’m ready to move on,” he said. “My life is not over. I just have to learn a different way of doing things.”
Lin said Harn’s quick recovery is not unusual. “Rarely do I see young people who have problems adjusting,” he said. “They tend to be more resilient, both physically and emotionally, than the older patients.”
Though many things have changed, there’s one aspect of Harn’s former life that he has no intention of giving up.
“I can still go hunting,” he said. “They make deer stands for people in wheelchairs.”
By DEBBIE GILBERT – The Times