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Off the Fast Track: Crash puts cyclist on volunteer path

Posted on April 26, 2018 in Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center

Off the Fast Track

Crash puts cyclist on volunteer path

John Nehls says he would give up all he owns to walk again, but he knows that’s not going to happen. Both of his legs have been paralyzed since September 2014, the day his daily 50-mile bike ride ended in a horrific collision with a parked truck. He later found respite as a volunteer with PNRC’s peer mentor program.

Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center (PNRC) volunteer John Nehls says he would give up all he owns to walk again, but he knows that’s not going to happen.

Both of his legs have been paralyzed since Sept. 10, 2014, the day his almost daily 50-mile bike ride ended in a horrific collision with a parked truck.

“I was at full racing speed, about 26 miles per hour, when the top of my head hit the back of the truck,” the 56-year-old Knoxville man said. “I hit it so hard that it broke my bike into four pieces.”

Worse, the crash left Nehls with multiple injuries and permanent paralysis. However, a month as an inpatient and about six months of outpatient therapy at PNRC brought not only healing for Nehls’ injuries, but transformation of his mind and spirit.

“I noticed that some people were happier than others, some were very depressed, as you might imagine, and others seemed to be just fine,” said Nehls of his fellow patients at PNRC, which is located inside Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center. “Somewhere along the way I made the decision, ‘I can either sit at home and be miserable or I can be happy.’ It’s really a conscious choice. So I chose to be happy. Then as I saw other people around, I said, ‘Can I spread happiness, good cheer and goodwill to other people?’”

He found his answer as a volunteer with PNRC’s peer mentor program. Nehls now can be found each week talking with others with spinal cord injuries. He offers suggestions, support, and encouragement; discusses common issues, and answers questions whenever a need arises.

“I’m in the same position that the patients are,” he said. “A therapist, even with as much experience as they have in working with people, they don’t know what it’s like. There is no way to know. What does it mean to be paralyzed? To have your back fused? To be in a wheelchair? I know that. So when I meet with people, I have an instant level of credibility.”

“There is a lot more to the daily walk of life than just walking,” said Nehls, who spent most of the 30 years prior to the accident on the road as a “lone wolf” process improvement consultant with a limited social life. “After the accident, I realized how little I was contributing to the betterment of other people. I was more concerned with career advancement, making more money, getting a better car and a bigger house. But that is no longer the focus of my life. Now it’s, ‘How can I encourage other people to do better?’”

 “I would still love to walk and would give up any material thing I have to accomplish that,” he said. “But my life is certainly enlarged, far more fulfilling and far more rewarding than it was. At the end of the day, I feel more enriched than before.”

If you’d like to inquire about volunteering at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center, call (865) 331-1249 or visit www.fsregional.com/volunteers.