Mothers at Shepherd Center form bond over tragic accidents

(left to right) Britt O'Brien, his mother Kristen, Jennifer Stanford & her son Julian in The Shepherd Center secret garden. The two mothers met at the center where their boys are patients. Both boys are currently paralyzed due to recent accidents. Due to COVID, the situation has been made extra difficult- no guests, only one parent, etc. The two women met in the halls and have formed an unlikely friendship in the midst of the unfathomable. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Combined ShapeCaption
(left to right) Britt O'Brien, his mother Kristen, Jennifer Stanford & her son Julian in The Shepherd Center secret garden. The two mothers met at the center where their boys are patients. Both boys are currently paralyzed due to recent accidents. Due to COVID, the situation has been made extra difficult- no guests, only one parent, etc. The two women met in the halls and have formed an unlikely friendship in the midst of the unfathomable. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

They were strangers just weeks ago, but now Jennifer Stanford and Kristen O’Brien are dear friends, bonded by trauma. Their homes are hundreds of miles apart, but, for now, they reside in the same place: Shepherd Center in Atlanta. Both women had their nightmares realized recently when their sons, their firstborns, were in horrific accidents, leaving them paralyzed.

It was 2 a.m. on Aug. 7 when Kristen and her husband Tim received a call at their Lexington, KY home. Their 21-year-old son Britt, who had traveled to Atlanta with friends, mistakenly dove into the shallow end of a pool and broke his neck. Desperate to get to their boy, who had been airlifted to Grady Memorial Hospital, the terrified parents chose to travel separately for fear of traffic jams and flight delays. Tim drove to Atlanta while Kristen flew.

“I arrived first to find Britt alert, smiling as always, seeming as though nothing was wrong – except he couldn’t move,” said Kristen.

Britt plays lacrosse at Centre College back home in Kentucky. He’s 6 feet 3 inches tall with a big personality to match. Doctors told Britt’s parents that his summer of intense workouts may very well have saved him.

“He nearly drowned in his accident, and he developed pneumonia after,” said Kristen. “He broke his C5 vertebrae. The prognosis in the ER was bleak. They gave Britt a 3 to 7 percent chance of moving anything beneath his shoulders again.”

After a surgery and weeklong stay at Grady, Britt was transferred to Shepherd. The O’Briens were grateful, as Shepherd is ranked in the top 10 rehabilitation centers in the United States, specializing in, among other things, spinal cord injuries.

Two weeks after Britt’s accident, on Aug. 21 in Chapin, S.C., Julian Stanford, 17, headed home after his shift at Higher Ground, a restaurant where he has worked for over a year. It is the perfect gig for a boy like him, who loves meeting new people and is known for his kind disposition. His mom, Jennifer, was tracking Julian’s drive on her phone via the Life360 app when suddenly, just a mile from home, Julian’s car stopped. She gave the app a chance to refresh, then tried Julian on his cell phone. When he didn’t answer, she grabbed her keys. She opened the garage door and heard sirens. She knew.

“I arrived at the same time as the ambulance,” said Jennifer. “The fire and police departments were already there. I ran to a lady, a police officer, and saw Julian’s car in the ditch. I begged the lady to let me go to him. I told her I’m a nurse, told her maybe I could help. She wouldn’t let me. I held on to her and cried uncontrollably. I was in my pajamas and rain was pouring down.”

It took an hour to remove Julian from his vehicle. He was conscious the entire time. The EMT’s allowed Jennifer to ride in the ambulance with him. Julian was alert and talking, but unable to move. The doctors shook their heads after his MRI and CT scan, telling Jennifer and husband Chris that Julian’s is what they call a complete injury at the C4 and C5 vertebrae. They said he will never walk again.

Julian had immediate surgery at Prisma Health Richland Hospital in Columbia, S.C., to repair his vertebrae and relieve compression. He was transferred to Shepherd 10 days later.

By this time, Britt had been moved from Room 403 in the ICU to a regular room down the hall.

“One of Britt’s doctors, Dr. Elmers, came into our room one afternoon and asked if I could return to Room 403 when I had time,” said Kristen. “She said there was a mom there who was struggling. She asked if I would give her a hug.”

Kristen took the familiar steps down the long, quiet hall and found Jennifer in Room 403. Within minutes, their eyes were glassy with tears, their arms wrapped around each other.

“That was it,” said Kristen. “We had an immediate connection. Just like that we had someone who knew exactly what we were going through and understood the severity of the situation.”

Though family and friends of both Britt and Julian have been amazingly supportive, this, the mothers say, has been a lonely, isolating experience. They both have husbands and other children at home, states away. COVID-19 restrictions allow for just one parent to stay with each patient. Leaving the hospital is not permitted for the parents, except for special circumstances. They sleep in the room with their boys and guests are only permitted outside at a gate that runs along a noisy stretch of Peachtree Road.

Combined ShapeCaption
(left to right) Kristen O'Brien, her son Britt, Julian Stanford & his mother Jennifer chat in The Shepherd Center secret garden. The two mothers met at the center where their boys are patients. Both boys are currently paralyzed due to recent accidents. Due to COVID, the situation has been made extra difficult- no guests, only one parent, etc. The two women met in the halls and have formed an unlikely friendship in the midst of the unfathomable. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

(left to right) Kristen O'Brien, her son Britt, Julian Stanford & his mother Jennifer chat in The Shepherd Center secret garden. The two mothers met at the center where their boys are patients. Both boys are currently paralyzed due to recent accidents. Due to COVID, the situation has been made extra difficult- no guests, only one parent, etc. The two women met in the halls and have formed an unlikely friendship in the midst of the unfathomable. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Combined ShapeCaption
(left to right) Kristen O'Brien, her son Britt, Julian Stanford & his mother Jennifer chat in The Shepherd Center secret garden. The two mothers met at the center where their boys are patients. Both boys are currently paralyzed due to recent accidents. Due to COVID, the situation has been made extra difficult- no guests, only one parent, etc. The two women met in the halls and have formed an unlikely friendship in the midst of the unfathomable. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Combined ShapeCaption
Kristen O'Brien and Jennifer Stanford both have teenaged sons that are patients at The Shepherd Center. Both boys are currently paralyzed due to recent accidents. Due to COVID, the situation has been made extra difficult- no guests, only one parent, etc. The two women met in the halls and have formed an unlikely friendship in the midst of the unfathomable. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Kristen O'Brien and Jennifer Stanford both have teenaged sons that are patients at The Shepherd Center. Both boys are currently paralyzed due to recent accidents. Due to COVID, the situation has been made extra difficult- no guests, only one parent, etc. The two women met in the halls and have formed an unlikely friendship in the midst of the unfathomable. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Combined ShapeCaption
Kristen O'Brien and Jennifer Stanford both have teenaged sons that are patients at The Shepherd Center. Both boys are currently paralyzed due to recent accidents. Due to COVID, the situation has been made extra difficult- no guests, only one parent, etc. The two women met in the halls and have formed an unlikely friendship in the midst of the unfathomable. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

“Shepherd is an amazing place, and they do all they can to facilitate visitation, but it’s hard not to feel like a prisoner under these circumstances,” said Jennifer. “I’m so thankful to have Kristen. She knows what to say, she knows what I’m going through, and vice versa. It is so hard to go through the worst time of your life and be deprived of human connection. Thank God I can hug Kristen.”

Julian and Britt have become friends and are able to visit one another’s rooms occasionally. They both have tentative discharge dates. Julian’s is in November, Britt’s December.

They have been told healing from a spinal cord injury is like watching a slug cross the street. Both boys have had small victories and the mothers pray many more lay ahead.

“For many of us here at Shepherd, hope is all we have,” said Jennifer. “Everyone here has a story like ours. One event that changed their life in a second.”

Sometimes in the evenings, Jennifer and Kristen step away from their sons for a moment to sit together in the lush confines of Shepherd’s Secret Garden. They share what’s on their minds, words of support, and hope. Sometimes they drift into a peaceful silence, so honest and comfortable, as if they’ve shared not mere weeks, but years.