- Associated Press - Sunday, October 26, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - Emmanuel Gilligan eyed the incline in front of him and the sand just beyond with determination.

Nearly two years ago, he would have charged those few feet without a second thought.

These days, it takes extra effort. He uses a manual wheelchair to get around.

The 41-year-old musician was shot during a robbery attempt in Brazil, where he had lived for the last 18 years.

Gilligan, whose mother and stepfather live in metro Atlanta, managed to get away but as the robbers were leaving, one fired, injuring Gilligan’s spinal cord. He heard about the Shepherd Center from his mother and is staying with them for now.

The March 2013 shooting left him paralyzed from the chest down, although he does have some feeling.

Today, he is navigating a training course on the Shepherd Center campus, where he is an outpatient. The course includes inclines, sand, gravel, cobblestones, grass and curbs of various heights.

“I’m still a learner,” said the married father of four, who lifts weights to build his upper body strength. The curbs are tricky, but the sand is the hardest. “There’s a method with the curbs,” he said. He must use the smaller back wheels for leverage, using his arms to power up and over. “It has to be just right or it can go wrong. It just takes practice.’”

In 2009, the Shepherd Center received a $25,000 grant from the Mike Utley Foundation to build the training course in Mavis Leslie Pruet Memorial Garden adjacent to Shepherd Center.

At the end, Gilligan said he is wiped out. “You get pretty tired.”

It’s part of preparation for the outside world where he has to maneuver his manual wheelchair in tight spaces and master getting it in and out of a car.”

Being able to get around “is a nice experience and you feel more encouraged to venture out and get around in society again,” he said.

Each year, the Shepherd center sees nearly 1,000 people with brain and spinal cord injuries on an inpatient basis.

In addition to the course, the center will host a free Advanced Wheelchair Skills Clinic from 9 a.m. through 1 p.m. Oct. 25 provides additional training for former patients and community members using manual wheelchairs.

There is demand for such services. Today, patients spend less time in the hospital, in part, because of changes in insurance coverage but also because people don’t need to stay in the facility as inpatients as long, according to Shari Mc-Dowell, director of Shepherd’s Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program.

As a result, therapists have less time to help patients learn how to sharpen their skills in a wheelchair.

And, in the case of some inpatients, they may not be strong enough to learn the skills so the clinic allows them to come back later.

“The average person who is able-bodied has absolutely no idea just how challenging the world is if you’re in a wheelchair,” said McDowell. “Accessibility is a huge barrier for people re-entering the lives they knew prior to their injury or illness.”

Take navigating Atlanta sidewalks, for instance.

Pavements may be uneven or broken. There are few accessible curbs. And some parts of the metro area don’t have sidewalks at all.

McDowell said she lives on a street that is steep and made of gravel. While she loves it, she realizes it wouldn’t be ideal for someone in a wheelchair.

“If I had to use a wheelchair to get around, I would petition the city to pave my road,” she said. Otherwise, “I wouldn’t be able to get up that hill. No way.”

Using a manual wheelchair requires a lot of upper body strength. But users must also learn how to use momentum in their favor and have lots of body awareness.

That’s what Melissa Gunter is learning at Shepherd.

Still a newlywed, Gunter, 25, was injured Aug. 9 in a car accident on her way to work, less than seven minutes from her home in Fort Deposit, Alabama.

She remembers very little about the accident - or what caused it. She just knows she saw the car going a little bit to the side. She tried to correct it and it spun out of control and went into a ditch. There are just bits and piece of images and sounds. Voices. The sound of a helicopter. At the hospital, she remembers asking a doctor to pray with her. Her faith got her through the harrowing news that she would not be able to walk. Now she is trying to master the use of her wheelchair. For her, gravel is the hardest because it’s unsteady and its movement unpredictable. She hopes the mobility skills help her at home. “I’m a work in progress.”

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Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, http://www.ajc.com

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