Disabled Civilian, still able
October 26, 2011
FORT STEWART, Ga. - In the fall of 2002, 17-year-old Jamie Allen didn't have a care in the world. The high school senior liked two things -- playing football and being outdoors. Life was great. However, in a split-second it all changed.
"I was racing 4-wheelers with my cousin," said Allen. "I collided into the back of his 4-wheeler and it ejected me off the front of mine. I did a flip in the air, hit the back of my head on the ground and snapped my neck."
It's estimated he was traveling at approximately 80 miles an hour at the time of the accident. He never lost consciousness and can still recall every detail of that day.
"I remember everything," Allen said. "I remember my cousin running over to me and asking if I was okay. I asked him to touch my legs. I looked up at the sky and waited ... and I asked him again. I said, 'touch my legs', and that's when he said 'I am'. When he said that I knew something was wrong, because I didn't feel anything. That's when panic set in."
An ambulance took Allen to the nearest hospital where he was then Medevac'd to Savannah for emergency surgery. He had suffered an incomplete fracture to his spinal cord at the C5 and C6 vertebrae, meaning his cord wasn't severed, but it was damaged.
The spinal cord is the largest nerve in the body. Its main purpose is to carry messages from the brain to other parts of the body. According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, after a spinal cord injury, all of the nerves above the level of injury keep working, but from the point of injury and below, they can no longer send or receive messages.
Allen's injury was at the base of his neck. Following surgery he spent three months in rehab re-learning basic skills -- how to brush his teeth, comb his hair and put on a shirt. However, the damage was done. He was now a paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair. In addition to the loss of his legs, he also lost the use of his triceps and the functionality of his hands. He can move his wrists, but not his fingers.
"It's a very humbling experience," he said. "You don't realize what you take for granted until something like that happens. There's no life book that tells you how to handle situations like this."
After his accident Allen returned to high school and graduated a year later, but he was still unsure what his future held. His dream of being a commercial electrician was no longer possible so he took a summer job on Fort Stewart. He liked it, so he returned for two more summers. Then in 2007 he became the first person on Fort Stewart to obtain a job under the disability act.
Nearly a decade after his accident, Allen is now a Lead Medical Support Assistant in the Call Center for Winn Army Community Hospital. He helps Army Families book medical appointments and he said he enjoys his job, but he prefers interacting with people.
He said, "When people see that I'm working and that I've got a smile on my face, even though I'm in the position I'm in, it automatically brightens their day -- you can just tell."
In the future Allen said he hopes to continue working for the military. He would like to earn a degree in counseling and use it, along with his first-hand knowledge of the rehabilitation process, to help Soldiers injured in combat.
But for now, in addition to working full time, he travels around the country sharing his story. He said he wants teenagers to look beyond Saturday night and understand how the decisions they make could impact the rest of their lives.
He doesn't get upset when people him ask about his disability, but he does get frustrated when they assume he can't speak for himself just because he's in a wheelchair.
"If I'm with somebody and someone else comes up, they talk to them about me, they won't look at me and talk," he said. I know they're not trying to be impolite. They're just curious and that's fine. The only way you're going to know is by asking. But ask the person who has the disability. Give them the chance to be an individual."