“My biggest challenge ever”

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The American Josh Smith was a graduate really going places. In 2013 he graduated from Virginia Tech University with a degree in mechanical engineering. Then he was approached by the CEO of Old Dominion Insulation to become the manager of their new office near Washington D.C. Everything was perfect until one day in August 2014. The 25-year old tells more.

How do you remember the day of your accident?
My accident was on August 23, 2014. I was spending the weekend visiting old friends. It was a beautiful summer’s day and we were having fun just hanging out at the beach together. We played a quick beach game before going into the water to cool off, swim, and toss around a frisbee and football.

How did you sustain your spinal cord injury?
I went approximately 10 yards out into the water, about knee deep, and after tossing a frisbee to a friend, I dove into a small wave, hitting a sandbar with great force. My friend Russell noticed me floating in the water and asked another friend, Ray, if he thought I was goofing around or in trouble. Ray quickly came over to check on me. He rolled me over and I immediately told him I couldn’t feel anything.  

Do you remember your first thoughts after your accident?
I remember striking something with my head and the next thing I realised I couldn’t move. When I opened my eyes, I saw a hand come in front of my face and thought it was one of my friends’ hands. I soon realized it was actually my hand but I couldn’t feel it. That was such a horrifying moment!

What were your fears?
At the time I knew something was seriously wrong but I really had no idea that I had broken my neck and was paralysed. My biggest fear at the time was that I was going to die.

What happened after your accident?
Ray carried me to the beach and laid me down on the sand. At that point I couldn’t move anything but my head and the only thing I could feel was him applying pressure to my chest. The paramedics arrived and assessed me then quickly loaded me into the ambulance. Then I was medflighted to the nearest trauma hospital, Sentara Norfolk General Hospital.

What was the diagnosis?
Upon arrival at the emergency room, I was examined and they did an x-ray of my neck. They told me I had a C-4/5 fracture. Even though I didn’t know what that meant, it was enough to know that I had no feeling and very little movement, and I quickly became unglued emotionally. When my mom arrived, the neurosurgeon stepped into the hall with her and explained that I had a burst fracture of  the C-5 vertebrate resulting in damage to the spinal cord and was a quadriplegic.

What was and is the hardest part in your new situation?
Initially, the most difficult part was adjusting to the fact that I was a quadriplegic. I remember when I arrived at Shepherd Spinal Rehabilitation Centre on a stretcher being suddenly surrounded by people in wheelchairs asking me all kinds of questions and feeling so overwhelmed. I couldn’t grasp that this was going to be me. I told myself if I worked hard enough I would be walking out the door by Christmas. I needed to believe that I could recover and become independent.

How has your life changed since your injury?
Life literally took a 180 degree turn on the day I was injured. But I have always seen the challenges in my life as obstacles to overcome. This was definitely my biggest challenge EVER! Suddenly spontaneity was out the door and I had to become a planner. Everything requires so much planning and forethought. I have always been very impatient. This injury has taught me patience even though it was a lesson I never wanted to learn.

How is your situation now?
Once I got home from rehab on January 8th 2015, I wanted a place of my own. My mom spent many hours on the phone calling around Richmond to find me an apartment that met my specific needs. 

Josh with his mother Caroline.
Josh with his mother Caroline.  

It was only a matter of a week before I was beginning to work from home part time. My boss set me up with computers at the apartment so I didn’t have to go into the office. I started driving at 6 ½ months post injury, which has enabled me to get out and about and go places with friends.Though my social life may be different than it was before my injury, I have really great friends who I keep in touch with and hang out with often.
After my injury, I also came up with an invention to type on a keyboard - the first prototype was a Ring Pop with an eraser head on it. I aptly named it the Sixth Digit and set up my own business, Handizap, to market it and future inventions and products.

What is the Sixth Digit and what do you use it for?
It’s a ring that can be used not only on a keyboard but on touch screen devices as well. Once home, I found a manufacturer for my first design. We launched a successful Kickstarter campaign and generated the income necessary to purchase our first shipment. Though it was a great deal of work, it was exciting that in less than a year, the Sixth Digit went from conception to completion and was shipped out to multiple different states and countries. As a result of my invention, I was honoured to receive the 2015 STEM Catalyst Award. Then I was asked to be a presenter at the Aging 2.0 Event and won the People’s Choice Award.

How does the Sixth Digit help you in your everyday life?
As I work on the computer for my job, I use the Sixth Digit for hours on end on my keyboard. Initially, my muscles grew tired with so much use because they were weak. But the use of the product turned out to be therapeutic as it strengthened certain muscles by using it.

What are the biggest barriers in your everyday life?
Things that able bodied people take for granted are difficult for me. I hate that so many homes are inaccessible due to steps. Thank goodness I have friends that will lift me up to get me into their homes. I also need to make sure the bathroom is accessible. If not, I have to figure out some other solution. Opening doors that are heavy can be a real barrier to getting into some buildings. You always have to be conscious of your surroundings. You really look at the world very differently when you are in a wheelchair and things you never noticed before can become huge obstacles to overcome.

How do you handle throwbacks?
I have a calm personality but those unexpected setbacks can be very upsetting. However, I try to deal with it and move on as I don’t want to let them discourage me for very long. I believe keeping a positive attitude is very important to recovery as well as living as full a life as possible.

What do you miss most in your new situation?
Initially my focus was on wanting to walk again. I miss being able to walk and run. But I soon realised I missed having hand, bladder and bowel function even more.

What are your goals and dreams for the future?
I want to be independent and hopefully one day get married and have children. I love my current job and hope to engage more in the social aspects of the business in time. Being an avid sports enthusiast, I really would one day love to participate in the Paralympics.

What do you think of Wings for Life and the work we do?
I am so thrilled that Wings for Life’s mission is to find a cure for spinal cord injuries by raising funds for world class research and clinical trials. Funding is extremely important. I hope and pray a cure will be found for spinal cord injuries in my lifetime.

Please support us with donations. 100% of your contribution is invested in spinal cord research.