Shannon Chisholm

Never Giving Up

By: Jolene Puffer


People say that we don’t know how strong we are until our strength is all that remains. On July 17, 2011, Shannon Chisholm began her journey of finding that strength. Shannon, 5’1” and barely 110 pounds, was an avid cyclist and a competitive bodybuilder. Her dimensions seem small on paper, but people watching her train and compete realized that she was anything but small.


She rode her bike to the gym every day and, since the weather was perfect that morning, she headed out. Little did she think that this might be the last bike ride she would ever take.


Hit by a car from behind, Shannon was thrown into the air and landed on her back. When witnesses stopped to help, she made sure that they did not move her, quick thinking that may have saved her life. Shannon learned later that she had three broken vertebrae and that her spinal cord was nearly severed. She was rushed to surgery where doctors inserted a rod into her back. Doctors told Shannon that surviving the accident was a miracle and that walking again would, perhaps, be her next miracle. The waiting began.


Shannon grew up here in Western North Carolina, attended high school at T.C Roberson, and met her future husband Ray in the sixth grade; they have two children, Brandon 15 and Jake 9. Shannon attended South College for a Physical Therapy Assistant degree and found her passion in working with pediatric patients, helping them learn to walk again after an injury or other medical issues.


Shannon is no stranger to hard work, for others or herself. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and had to change her way of life in many areas, especially eating. An entirely different diet gave her the drive to stay in top physical condition, a great help after the accident. After seven days at Mission Hospital, she was moved to Shepherd Spine Clinic in Atlanta, one of the best places for patients with spinal cord injuries, especially those with additional complications. The clinic accepts patients in their program with a variety of stipulations, most importantly believing that they will achieve a good outcome. Shannon, fortunately, received that opportunity.


For six weeks, Shannon learned how to get in and out of her wheelchair, how to dress, how to enter a car and exit, and how to navigate life in a wheelchair. Still hopeful of walking again, she used her time in treatment challenging herself and thinking big. Three weeks after her arrival, doctors told Shannon that, due to the nature of her injuries, she would never walk again. She refused to accept that fate; Shannon knew what she was capable of accomplishing and refused to make their dire predictions the end of her story.


After returning home, her real work began. Shannon had no health insurance at the time of the accident, so mounting medical bills and pending insurance claims caused her family additional stress. Shannon now had another challenge: assuring that the medical bills did not claim her family’s future. The Monday following her accident was to have been Shannon’s first day working at a new clinic with a health insurance package for the family. Tragedy struck before her benefits were in place. For Shannon, the financial strain is sometimes greater than the stress of not walking again. Ray, Shannon’s husband, works with electronic currency devices and owns a software web business. He works long hours and will start school part time to finish his degree. They had invested in Shannon’s physical therapy degree at South College the year before to give the family a steady income. In addition, they had finally purchased a first home, in Fletcher.


Many have wondered whether the woman responsible for hitting her paid any of the medical bills? Unfortunately, the driver’s insurance had a maximum $50,000 liability and that was all that could be awarded. Lawyers could have sued the driver for her personal assets, but Shannon felt that two wrongs do not make a right. Her new financial challenges included discovering that being in the middle class with some money prevented her from receiving the help she would have in a lower income bracket.


For example, her bracket was too high to qualify for hand controls for her car; $3,500 was more than they could afford after facing all the other financial hardships. As she tries to recover, Shannon faces mounting debts and concerns that her once-bright future as a physical therapy assistant has been replaced by dependency on a broken system. “No one should have to choose between feeding your kids, paying the mortgage, or having a wheelchair that fits properly.” Her reality has become harassing phone calls from medical bill collectors, being dropped by Medicaid, and filling the financial gaps and shortfalls the accident created.


Shannon’s friends joined together in January and hosted the first annual Chisholm Challenge, a fitness event that raised about $10,000 to help with the bills. Shannon is now working with Eblen Charities to establish a fund for other people experiencing similar hardships. Shannon won’t be deterred by financial or physical setbacks; she plans to overcome both problems in a big way.


Her husband—her rock—heads her team; that has been so valuable and important. In addition, her father (technically her stepfather, but he has been there for her since she was three) took nine months off from work to accompany her for every exam and rehabilitation appointment. Since he has a Master’s Degree in Rehabilitation Therapy, he has first-hand expertise and knowledge on treating people suffering traumatic injuries, whether or not paralyzed.


Over the last 20 years, he has been part of a team of doctors, nurses, and therapists traveling to hospitals in North Carolina to audit the rehabilitation care that patients similar to Shannon receive. With this information, he has evaluated Shannon’s treatment. He knows that her treatment has been some of the best ever; it has definitely contributed to her current success and will hopefully result in her walking again someday. He continues to be one of the motivating spirits in her life. He has been pivotal in helping Shannon think about this long journey and has helped her keep her perspective. When Shannon heard that she would never walk again, his advice was, “Cry today; cry as much as you need to because you have earned the right to cry. But, after today, you cannot cry anymore because you need every ounce of energy to get better, to heal, and to learn to walk again. It is hard to imagine focusing on the half-full part of the glass, rather than the half-empty, during times like these. You had many wonderful years of using your legs, but the important thing to remember now is that you are still alive with family and friends all around you.”


Shannon must overcome many hurdles, but she also has years of life to enjoy. Shannon is a fighter with a strong belief in God and faith that she will overcome this set back. She is more committed than ever to walking again and proving to others that her motto never give up is truly how she lives. Inspiring others is a gift Shannon has always had, and she will continue changing her life and the lives of others.


Jolene Puffer is passionate about fitness. Twenty years ago she began a journey changing lives through wellness/fitness. She has worked for a variety of clients and has traveled and taught in the U.S., Europe, Asia and recently in Panama, Curacao and the Dominican Republic. This year she focuses on corporate wellness working with the Biltmore Company and a number of other companies in the WNC area.


Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker