Spain Rehab’s 2023 Ambassador of Hope honored for connecting with fellow patients

Spain Rehab’s 2023 Ambassador of Hope, Shonta Culpepper

Each year, UAB Spain Rehabilitation Center (SRC) selects a patient for the Ambassador of Hope Award. This special honor goes to a person with a physical disability whose courage and determination inspire hope in others facing similar challenges.

The 2023 award-winner is Birmingham resident Shonta Culpepper, an SRC patient since 2008. She says the story of her disability involves a sudden physical illness, the shocking loss of a normal life, and then ongoing efforts to achieve and maintain as much independence as possible. Care providers and others who know Culpepper say her story is one of inspiration and willpower.

‘Came out of nowhere’

While at work in 2008, Culpepper began having back pain unlike anything she’d ever experienced. The pain grew and spread, along with a sensation of weakness in her limbs.

“By the time I left work that evening, my arm was also hurting, and the pain was enough to send me to the emergency department,” Culpepper said. “After two hours in the emergency room, I was having this feeling that everything was physically shutting down, with my arms getting weaker and then other areas of my body. I wound up on a ventilator. I had no idea what was happening. I’d never had any health issues – this just came out of nowhere.”

After extensive testing, Culpepper was diagnosed with transverse myelitis (TM), a rare nervous system disease that causes inflammation and damages nerve fibers in the spinal cord. It can be caused by many things, including viral infections, abnormal immune system responses, and stroke. Fewer than 2,000 people are diagnosed with TM each year in the United States.

Symptoms can vary depending on what area of the spinal cord is affected. The most common symptoms are numbness and weakness in the limbs, loss of bladder and bowel control, and the inability to walk. Treatment varies depending upon the cause, and some patients can quickly return to their routines at home and work.

In Culpepper’s case, the nerve damage was severe. Confined to a wheelchair, she would require long-term therapy to help manage her permanent disabilities. Her therapy included range-of-motion exercises to prevent her muscles from tightening up and increase joint movement. Other exercises focused on strength and restoring some muscle function. The goals were to improve upper body mobility, reduce the risk of medical complications from her chronic spinal cord injury, and maximize her independence using an electric wheelchair. Culpepper’s therapy continues to this day.

Dual challenge

Culpepper says the early stages of therapy presented her with two personal challenges.

“To be honest, I may have been able to physically work harder toward some amount of recovery in the early period of my condition,” she said. “But I was struggling with the mental and emotional side of my situation, not just the paralysis. It was a battle. For something like this to happen so suddenly, after being perfectly healthy until that very moment, I felt like my life change was really a kind of life loss, or I should say the loss of a normal life. That put me in a state of depression. I was a single parent. I had just started a new job that I was excited about. Then everything was snatched away.”

SRC Inpatient Rehabilitation Therapist Addison Owens witnessed Culpepper confronting tremendous challenges. “Shonta had specific goals for where she wanted to get, and she was determined to reach some level of independence,” Owens said. “That takes willpower. She’s been a trouper through all of it, and she still shows a consistent willingness to try anything we suggest. But along with Shonta’s resilience, it has been her effect on other patients through the years that led us to choose her as our 2023 Ambassador of Hope. She shares her experience with anyone here who needs a boost or needs to hear from someone who has faced similar challenges. She has a natural ability to make connections.”

A positive spirit

Owens recalls one specific connection Culpepper made that exemplifies the benefits of positive energy and empathy.

“A few months after I met Shonta, another young woman came to SRC with a spinal cord injury,” Owens recalled. “We introduced her to Shonta, and immediately we saw a drastic change in that young woman’s mood and willingness to engage with the therapy team and others. At first, Shonta would meet her here and just encourage her during therapy appointments, but Shonta quickly developed a strong relationship with her, and they would often talk on the phone or FaceTime outside of therapy. There’s no way to measure the important impact that making that bond had on the other patient.”

In fact, Culpepper’s positive disposition has become a kind of resource at SRC.

“Shonta’s positive, upbeat spirit seems to uplift everyone here, patients and staff alike,” Owens said. “Many times I have asked her to chat with someone who might benefit from sharing with another patient who can truly empathize. She can help patients understand what they are facing, what opportunities exist for regaining function, and other aspects of this new life they are facing. It’s extremely valuable for them to hear that coming from Shonta’s perspective.”

Culpepper sees her role as another aspect of her own recovery. “I know I’ve made progress since I began doing therapy at Spain, and I no longer think this disability has fully taken over my life,” Culpepper said. “I’m honest with the patients I talk to. This is hard. It’s a challenge. But they also need to hear someone who has been through it tell them, ‘Don’t give up.’”

Created in 2014, the UAB Transverse Myelitis Clinic is one of only three in the world, and it combines multi-specialty care with the latest research findings to better understand and treat this complex illness. Learn more about UAB Spain Rehabilitation Center.

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