Chef, restaurateur fights to regain use of limbs: ‘It’s like trying to move a 20 pound brick with your mind.’
Columbus restaurateur Mark Jones is sitting in an Atlanta rehab hospital clinging to hope of a full recovery, but balancing it against the reality of his situation.
And that reality is a tough one.
Jones, 53, is a quadriplegic from injuries suffered in an early morning car crash on May 20 when he plowed his truck into the rear of an 18-wheeler in Phenix City as he was traveling home from an out-of-town trip. After undergoing surgery at Piedmont Columbus Regional's midtown campus to relieve pressure on his spinal chord, Jones was moved to The Shepherd Center in Atlanta, one of the top rehab hospitals in the nation.
"Truthfully, right now there is no prognosis," he said earlier this week. "They will tell you a lot of it they just don't know. It could come back quickly. It could come back slowly. It might get to a certain point and stop. You just don't know."
The reality is one tinged with uncertainty, something that does not come easy for a man who has built nine successful restaurants from scratch over the last two decades.
"It can be a year in therapy, day in and day out," he said. "It can be six months. Dealing with a spinal cord injury you just don't know. If you ask me, I am going to try to beat this, hopefully, over the summer. I don't know, either. It is a very slow process. Moving a foot is almost like trying to move a 20-pound brick with your mind. It's not the easiest thing in the world."
Jones has a high cervical spinal cord injury. In layman's terms, it's not pretty — and it's life-altering. He is paralyzed from the neck down, with only minimal function in his arms and legs. A lift swing is used to get him out of the bed to his wheelchair and he's working daily with the physical and occupational therapy team at The Shepherd Center.
"I think they are going to give me the best chance to hopefully overcome whatever," he said.
And whatever can be daunting.
During an occupational therapy session this week, you could see the baby steps Jones is taking to his new normal. He clearly had some core strength and he can move his left leg better than he can move his right one.
"My right leg just started moving last week," he said. "My left leg has been moving for a couple of weeks."
His right arm is getting stronger each day, but he has range of motion issues with both of his arms. It's a daily struggle, one that his wife, Sheri, is witnessing every step of the way.
"I see him making progress," she said by his bedside this week. "It is not an easy journey. He wants to walk out of here next week. All of the odds are against him. I have to see the reality of the situation and not to bring his hopes and dreams down. Of course, that's what we hope for. We have to live in the moment and have faith in the future."
One of the reasons for that faith is Jones' dogged determination, a grinder's work ethic that has allowed him to build a successful business.
"His determination is there to overcome this," Sheri said. "I see the fight he is putting to get through it. There is nothing easy about it. I think the hard thing is he has all the demons he's fighting with and on a different level I have all the things I am dealing with. Some days, he has to be in a good mood when I am going off the deep end and there are days when he is going off the deep end that I have to be in a good mood."
But they work at it together, Jones said.
"Sometimes you just got to let go," he said. "I am not going to lie to you, this is probably the hardest battle I am facing in my life. I will also tell you if it was not for my wife and the rest of the family and all of the prayers coming out of Columbus, it would be a lot harder."
There are body changes, outside of the obvious, that he could not see coming. Something as simple as watery eyes is now a painful process. His eyes burn anytime he tears up, which he now does more often as he thinks about the support he's receiving from family and friends.
"It's like my tears turned to acid," he said, as Sheri was wiping his eyes.
And he worries a lot — about his family, Sheri and their six children, ranging in age from 9 to 29. It has been tough on the kids, he said.
"Some handle it better than others, but I think they are all dealing with it really well," Jones said. "I worry about my 9-year-old and my 17-year-old — who am I kidding — I worry about all of them. You're a dad and you are always worried about your kids."
He also worries about his businesses. He talks to employees in the restaurants daily and has a camera app on his phone where he can check-in from time to time.
"That is my sole means of taking care of my family," Jones said. "That is probably my biggest concern, right there, but I am thinking of a lot of different things. I can't sit here and focus on what I have ahead of me in therapy 24/7 because I would go crazy. I am thinking about new directions to go. What Columbus needs. How I can do better with what I do?"
Jones started building his restaurant empire in 1998 when he opened Hunter's Pub, a popular southern Harris County steakhouse. He owns, or co-owns, five restaurants in downtown Columbus, including Smoke Bourbon and BBQ, Black Cow, The Poultry Company, Flip Side Burgers & Tacos and Plucked Up Chicken and Biscuits. He also owns Mark’s Pies and Thighs in Harris County, Ready, Steak, Go takeout restaurants and Mark’s City Grill.
In addition to the physical recovery, the situation has put Jones in a financial hardship.
After the Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurance company announced they would no longer support and offer individual coverage in Georgia, the Joneses were forced to explore a new insurance policy. During the process of seeking a new policy, the crash occurred, leaving the family uninsured.
"Our family has helped out," Jones said on how he is paying the mounting medical bills. "We are dealing with it day by day and we will cross some of those bridges when we get there. It's a scary outlook. Definitely one I never wanted to be in and I never thought we would be at this point."
In addition to working to get mobility in his extremities, The Shepherd Center is also working with Jones and his wife to prepare them for what they face when they return to Columbus. Right now, Jones is scheduled to remain in the hospital until the middle of next month. He will then be moved to a unit on the hospital grounds and continue his therapy during what they call a "day program." When he completes that, Jones will return home.
"That's another thing we are looking toward when we leave here, so we can prepare for it," he said. "We will either have to rent or find another place that is accessible for me. Transportation. Getting in and out of bed, it's a lot to take in. It's hard to take in all at one time."
Many causes and organizations have turned to Jones when they were fundraising. He has given thousands of dollars in gift certificates and donations over the years and had organized benefits. When the tornado hit Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 2011, he raised about $10,000 for a relief effort being sponsored by Alabama Coach Nick Saban.
Now, Jones finds himself as the one needing the help.
"It's not easy and it's different," he said. "I would much rather be doing an event for somebody else. I never thought about me in those type situations."
That's where his friends like business partner Stephanie Woodham and PTAP owner Jason Gamache come into the picture. Woodham is working to put together a series of fundraisers using local restaurants and business people like Gamache.
"It's the right thing to do," Gamache said on Friday. "When you have somebody like Mark, who is a vital part of this community, and he needs your help, you help. That's what we do here. This is a time where you turn around and love your neighbor."
"It is going to be tough for him to ask, so that's what I am going to do," said Woodham, who is throwing the promotional weight of her public relations and online advertising business Yalla behind the effort.
The first people to reach out to help were those who compete with Jones for business, Woodham said.
"In Columbus, sometimes the restaurant scene can get competitive, but honestly, those were the first people who reached out when they heard of Mark's situation," she said. "Berry Merrill, owner of B.Merrell's, has reached out at least once a week, checking on Mark and wanting to talk to Mark."
Woodham is in the process of finalizing fundraising efforts with local restaurants that will be conducted next month.
A GoFundMe account has been set up with the goal of raising significant money to help Jones cover his expenses. An account has also been set up at the local Synovus banks.
But for now, Woodham is inspired by Jones' drive to get better every day.
"Mark is a very, very, very driven individual," Woodham said. "Mark will set his focus on something, like starting a new restaurant from the ground up, which would intimidate about 95 percent of the people in the world. He is driven enough where he will put a concept up overnight, he will put a menu up the next night. The next thing you know he's got a building. Five weeks later it's opening. Five weeks later, it's five-star reviews across the board."
This is a different kind of challenge, Sheri said.
"You have to do certain things and move on from there," she said. "It's like one time they told us these were chapters. And in this chapter this is what we are doing. And the next chapter, maybe you are doing something else. It's hard to make him understand these chapters. That's a battle with him on a daily basis."
But this is a battle he is fighting with all the strength he can muster.
"Mentally, I am walking out of here next week, but sometimes you got to look at it a little bit different," Jones said. "My goal is to get all my functions back and I hope that's where we end up, but I also have to be realistic. That's the hardest part to deal with. It's one of those bridges we have to cross when we get there."