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April 5, 2013

Whatley makes dramatic recovery from cycling accident

VALDOSTA — It has been a grueling and arduous winter for cycling enthusiast Mark Whatley, who was hit by an SUV during a morning ride Sept. 10, 2012 when it was still dark. The driver did not stop to help him, and he remained on the side of Inner Perimeter Road with a broken back, barely able to crawl to the highway to wave down assistance.

In October, the prognosis was grim, even after a successful surgery to repair a shattered vertebra and place rods in Whatley’s lower back. Doctors could not say for sure if he would ever walk again, much less ride a bike.

But he has proved that miracles do happen, especially with effort.

Thursday morning, six and a half months after the accident, Whatley was up and around the house, walking with a cane, his wheelchair boxed up and ready to be put into storage. He showed an air of confidence that was all but lost back in the fall, and he now anticipates the day he will get back on the bike.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to get out and ride on the road again, but I want to get out on my mountain bike and ride down the street,” Whatley said. “Even if it’s just to go get ice cream with my kids.”

Back in October, Whatley teared up at the thought that he would never again be able to participate in the family tradition of riding down the road to Brusters with his two sons, 11 and 7. Now the prospect of joining them again lights up his face.

Whatley continues in outpatient therapy at North Crossing Rehabilitation Clinic, and he works out his legs Monday through Friday at the YMCA, he said. His goal is to walk two miles a day; to him, recovery is all about the work.

Most of the pain now is from working out, he said. The months in a back brace and off of his feet have left his back and legs weak. While he has regained movement and feeling in his legs where there was none, he must nurture his muscles to become strong again.

As his strength continues to return, the priority of his wife and children has shifted from the need to serve to the need to keep his aspirations in check as he barrels forward through recovery.

“I always think my progress is slower than it should be,” Whatley said. “It takes my wife and therapist to say, ‘You know, you’re doing really good.’ I have high standards for myself. In six months, I thought I’d be better, but I have to remind myself that my muscles have atrophied, and I’m rebuilding them from scratch. That’s the reason infants can’t walk—they have to build those muscles.”

His sons have learned responsibility from the experience, regularly helping him with dishes and cooking, and his wife “knows that time when I need a swift kick in the butt, and when I need a hug and a pat on the back,” Whatley said.

Whatley returned to work as a professor of psychology at Valdosta State University in January—a huge step in his recovery. While he uses the cane around the house, he prefers a walker in the classroom, which allows him to keep a bag of teaching tools hanging by his side.

His students have been supportive of his injury and recovery, he said. The first time he walked into class, he was met with applause.

“Lots of students say, ‘I’m glad you’re back,’” Whatley said. “And when you think you’re a tough teacher, for them to say that is huge.”

One student, who endured a back surgery for scoliosis, had watched Whatley’s motions and mentioned recently that his walking “has gotten smoother,” Whatley said. And the faculty has remained accommodating as well.

“They told me, if you need anything, let us know,” he said. “I’m really appreciative of that.”

As a psychology professor, dealing with mourning, sadness, loss and recovery was an interesting experience, he said. While he has written papers based on studies, his mental metamorphosis since the accident has been an informal study of its own, this time first-hand.

“It brought psychology home to a very personal level,” Whatley said. “We talk about research in psychology, but this is what I’m going through.”

Some circumstances of the accident still irritate Whatley, but he is trying to place his focus on the future instead of looking back, he said. That includes taking in the image of his wrecked bike.

In October, Whatley was haunted by the thought of his damaged bike, and he still has not spent much time with it, but he has made his way into the garage for various reasons, including taking out the recycling, and has thrown his glance upon it a few times.

Whatley dreams of getting back on the bike, but he looks forward to returning to labor around the house like mowing the grass again—what he calls “normal stuff.”

“I hope to get back to being independent,” Whatley said. “This thing has helped me realize that it’s okay to be dependent; that it’s not such a bad thing to have support.”

His recovery has impressed his family, friends, and even his doctor, who calls Whatley “a walking miracle.”

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