Turning a life-changing accident into a mission to help others
The pain started with a fall.
Sellars L. Vines II, on spring break during his eighth-grade year, was trying to stay warm outside a library in suburban Chicago by standing on a ventilation grate when it collapsed, causing him to fall about 20 feet. He woke up at the hospital, where he learned the fall had caused three broken ribs, a broken scapula, a left lung puncture, bone fractures in his upper and lower spine, a mild spinal cord injury, and a concussion.
About three weeks later, he was released to go home to heal. “The pain was immobilizing,” he says. “I couldn’t sit up or move normally. I couldn’t turn my neck normally; the pain was constant, and even tiny movements would make it hurt to a higher degree.” Doctors told Sellars he would probably live a more physically limited life.
“I tried to stay as positive as I could, but it was very disheartening to know that I wouldn’t be able to play contact sports,” he says. Among his favorites: football, soccer, and basketball. “I felt needy and had to ask everybody for help. Being dependent for everything was awkward, because I’m used to doing everything individually.”
Determined from the start
His parents, Sellars and Sylvia, were at once deeply concerned and confident he would be successful. And he was confident, too: “I knew I was going to be OK, that this was just a season in my life,” he says. Sellars and his family draw strength from a variety of sources, including their faith.
“I told him, ‘Son, we are praying for you daily that you will be restored, that you’ll be able to do more, and that you will reconcile the life God has given you with the dream life you’ve always had for yourself,’” says Sylvia. She says her son has been strong: “He’s been determined from the beginning to get better.”
“Chronic pain is a debilitating condition that can greatly impact your life, and support is key,” says Sellars, now 19. Among his sources of support is the family’s church, New Faith Baptist Church International.
“After my accident, my classmates sent me letters and a poster,” he says. “In one letter, my friend Kellyn, who I had just met through football, said, ‘God gives his greatest battles to his greatest warriors.’ That quote really helped me; I remember being in the hospital, reading those letters, and that made me want to push—somebody I had just met sent that letter.” Their confidence bolstered his spirits.
Balancing school and therapy
Sellars ended up missing the fourth quarter of his eighth-grade year, and most of his freshman year of high school on a Homebound Education Plan through each school district, as he went through outpatient rehabilitation. His parents put a 504 plan into place to ensure he could keep up with his education.
Sellars tried a few rehabilitation options, but ultimately found success in 2014 at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab (formerly Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago). There, he enjoyed a multidisciplinary approach that included a wide variety of treatment options.
“My pain management specialist at the AbilityLab told me there was nothing he could do to stop my pain, but that he could help me learn to live with it,” says Sellars. That moment was a crossroads; he could have gotten discouraged, but he chose to persevere. “So far, I have learned to deal with my pain through physical therapy, biofeedback, imagery, stretching, massage, and exercise,” he says.
When Sellars came back to school, he had to take care not to get knocked around or fall—he was still healing. Kellyn would join up with other football friends, and together, they would surround Sellars so he could walk through the halls, protected in a roving huddle. That team spirit helped keep Sellars motivated.
Embracing a non-linear healing path
For a few years, Sellars was able to go back to school and pursue some exercise, but it wasn’t until his senior year that he tried conventional P.E. classes again. “He wanted to do regular P.E., and it exposed him to new movements and a new range of motion and required him to do things physically that he wasn’t used to doing,” says Sylvia. “That, along with sitting in a classroom all day, meant that he was straining all day long to cope.”
He had a flare-up, which Sellars says was his introduction to the idea that his pain truly would be chronic. “I wasn’t sure how to handle it. I was in a lot of pain, almost the exact same as right after my initial accident,” he says. “I felt stuck; I needed a refresh.” They decided to go back to the AbilityLab for a reboot of sorts, which helped him finish his senior year and prepare for college. Sellars says knowing he can rely on his pain care team, and learning he can always get more help, eased his mind.
“Sellars forced himself to get his work done, to clear his deficits so he could graduate with his class,” says Sylvia. She says that through his mantra of being persistent and determined, “he was able to rise above the reality of his pain and still put that big goal on the wall, to press toward it. It gives me confidence that his dreams will become reality.”
He has taken his experience and turned it into a mission to help others. “Because of my accident and learning to deal with pain, I decided to become an engineer and design technology to help people who do not have full range of motion and are struggling through day-to-day life,” says Sellars. He just stared freshman year at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., where he is majoring in engineering with a concentration in biomedical sciences.
At Bradley, he will be able to work on his own projects in addition to his assigned coursework—including an exoskeleton and prosthetics, which he says will help people with limited range of motion and strength be more successful. He hopes to one day work with the military to create technology that helps those who serve feel stronger, endure longer treks with heavy packs, and be safer.
Making the transition to college
Figuring out accommodations for Sellars at college was very difficult, says Sylvia. “I had quite a frightening time navigating how to obtain accommodations for my son at the collegiate level. We received all kinds of conflicting responses from high school administrators, other parents, and the community. However, Sellars had no problems obtaining accommodations at the community college where he took a class over the summer after graduation, or at Bradley University. Both the college and university granted him accommodations after medical documentation was submitted and a request was made for accommodations.
“I’d like to encourage parents and kids alike to research the resources that are available to accommodate this debilitating and disruptive condition, which can greatly impact the learning environment,” she continues. “It is very encouraging to know that young adults transitioning into a greater level of independence can continue to have support in place. And my son felt a greater level of confidence about transitioning into college life.
“Even through tears, I’m excited for him,” Sylvia adds. “If you see his smile and his excitement, it’s infectious. He knows how to advocate for himself; he’s the one who requested his accommodations at Bradley, the one who conducted his meeting with the social worker—I was just there to support him. He has learned to advocate for himself.”
Sellars’ accommodations at Bradley include more time on tests; more flexibility in note-taking (including recordings of each lecture); and preferred registration options so he can sign up early for classes.
“I’m really excited for him,” says Sylvia. “I thought I would be a lot more anxious, but Sellars is such a mature young man. He’s been preparing himself for college for a while. He’s ready.”
Sellars’ dad agrees: “He’s been a source of inspiration and motivation, to his classmates, his family—even his two sisters, Jadan and Micah, who fight with him every day,” he chuckles. “He’s taught a number of lessons, even when he didn’t know he was teaching anyone, about what it actually takes to get up when you fall, when you’ve suffered, when you’ve been injured. Not only the physical challenges, but the emotional and psychological ones, too.
“He’s been a champion, and he’s learned to champion himself—which is key to any level of success in life,” he says.
Shirley Ryan AbilityLab: sralab.org
Ingalls Hospital Physical Therapy: ingalls.org/aoi-rehabilitative-medicine