Mark Jones took cautious, shaky steps.
He first went along with the aid of a walker, then without it. A spotter followed close behind as Jones made his laps around the gym floor.
The 54-year-old Columbus chef and restaurateur realized long ago that his healing would not be quick. Two months ago, he wasn’t able to take those steps without the walker. He remembers the early days too — the days when he had to look at his thumb and think hard to even get it to wiggle.
He says there’s still work to be done. His arms aren’t working as well as he’d like them to, and he relies on a motorized wheelchair to get around.
But doctors weren’t sure he’d ever be able to walk again.
More than a year ago, Jones was driving home from a weekend getaway in Mississippi when he plowed into the back of an 18-wheeler.
He’s spent his time since the wreck regaining muscle strength and control — teaching himself how to move again. Initially, Jones couldn’t feel much below the neck.
But Jones’ goal doesn’t stop at using his arms and legs again. He wants to get back in the kitchen.
‘I was there while they were pulling me out of the truck’
It was midnight on May 20, 2018. Jones was just outside Columbus, about 8 miles from home.
He can’t remember hitting the back of the 18-wheeler. He thinks he was going about 60 mph and might have fallen asleep at the wheel.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I wish I did.”
An off-duty EMT crawled into Jones’ truck and took care of him until the ambulance arrived. He knew something was wrong — he couldn’t feel much and had trouble breathing.
“I never lost consciousness,” Jones said as he recalled the wreck. “I was there while they were pulling me out of the truck. I was there while they were putting me in the ambulance. I might have been a little in and out at that particular time. But I remember them putting me on the trauma table.”
Jones suffered a high cervical spinal cord injury. He described it as a “contusion” on the C2, C3 and C4 section of his cord. Three days after the wreck, doctors performed neck surgery where they made more room for Jones’ spinal cord and took bone spurs off his spine.
About a week later, Jones was taken to The Shepherd Center in Atlanta, an expert medical center dedicated to the treatment, research and rehabilitation for people suffering from spinal cord injuries.
Would Jones be able to fully recover? It was unclear. For some, there is no progress. The recovery could come relatively quickly for other patients. Sometimes, other patients have a slower recovery time or plateau after a certain point.
“They weren’t saying I was never going to walk again but they weren’t saying I was going to walk again … Everybody heals differently,” he said.
“It was very humbling.”
‘It was like moving a 100-pound weight with your mind.’
Rehab started in early June 2018, and Jones set a goal to be walking by the end of summer.
Early on it was hard, he said. Jones would stare at his thumb and focus on trying to get it to move. He’d eventually get a little wiggle.
“It was like trying to move a 100-pound weight with your mind,” Jones said recalling his first rehab session. “I didn’t really move anything.”
For the first two months at the Shepherd Center, he required around-the-clock attention. His wife, Sheri, was by his side.
A good day meant doing something new at therapy and having some hope — a twitch or moving a body part a little more than the day before.
A bad day, though, felt like a step backward. On days like those, Jones said it felt like he was carrying too heavy a load on his shoulders.
But the bad weeks could change with a single good day. There were many times when Jones said he made a lot of progress on the last day of therapy after several days when he felt like he wasn’t getting anywhere.
“Whenever my spirits got kind of the lowest, something came in and boosted them to get me ready for the next week and give me strength to keep going,” he said.
Jones had to learn how to rely on others. And that wasn’t easy. He had a family and several restaurants to think about. He was also in between insurance policies, leaving him solely responsible for early medical bills.
Jones owns several eateries:
- Hunter’s Pub and Steakhouse
- Mark’s City Grill
- The Black Cow
- Ready, Steak, Go
- Plucked Up Chicken and Biscuits
- Flipside Burgers and Tacos
- Smoke Bourbon and BBQ
He had to turn over day-to-today operations to his staff.
“The first six, seven months I pretty much could do nothing but concentrate on rehab,” Jones said. “They stepped up and handled the job. I’m very grateful to be working with the people I’m working with.”
His close friends and members of Columbus’ restaurant community led fundraising efforts last July that raised more than $100,000 to help with medical bills, and he’s gotten plenty of kind words and encouragement from his family and those around him.
“He’s very giving,” said Stephanie Woodham, close friend and business partner. “If you are around Mark or a friend of Mark’s, you will see that he wants nothing but the best for everybody. He will do anything for you,” she said.
Jones and his wife, Sheri, have six children ranging in age from almost 30 to 10, and most are still in Columbus. Just their presence, Jones said, motivates him to work harder to heal.
“Every time I look at my wife and little boy and all that, I want to get better for my family just as much as I want to get better for myself,” he said.
In spite of the uncertainty, Jones remained determined that he would walk again. He didn’t let himself think that he would never take another step.
“I always knew I was going to walk. I always kept that in my mind … I won’t let my mind think that way,” he said.
He made progress that summer, but he wasn’t taking steps on his own.
Looking back, Jones said that was an unrealistic expectation. He’s now setting what he calls “lofty but attainable goals.”
“Patience is probably the hardest thing for me,” Jones said. “From day one, everybody has been telling me, ‘It’s a marathon not a sprint.’ And that was probably the hardest perception I had to get through — knowing that it wasn’t going to be quick. You think you’re going to hit a tipping point and everything is going to go quicker or faster (but) it’s kind of the same old pace day in and day out. It’s a grind.”
The first major milestone came three-and-a-half months in — Jones stood up for the first time.
A few weeks later, in September 2018, Jones left the center, although he’d have to return for rehab sessions.
‘I would love to get back to Columbus and get back to some kind of normal day.’
Jones arrived at the Shepherd Center last week for one of his routine weekly therapy sessions — he goes four or five times each week.
He and Sheri are now living in an Atlanta apartment. They sold their Columbus home but they still have property in Harris County. He hopes to return to after summer when his therapy schedule will drop to three days each week.
Jones is still making progress. Two months ago, he walked a lap around the center’s gym without using an assistive device.
He’s still processing emotionally, too. The accident’s one-year anniversary has come and gone. It was an emotional day, he said.
“I know that I made a lot of progress, and I’m very proud of the progress that I’ve made,” he said. “But you also know enough about it now that you can look at the road that you have in front of you and know it’s getting shorter, but it’s still a rough road.”
Jones remains thankful for the support he’s received from his family and the broader Columbus community.
“Without their help and without their prayers and support, I would not be as far along as I am today,” he said. “They kept my spirits up.”
Jones’ arm movement isn’t coming back as quickly as his leg movement did. It’s been frustrating, he said.
“If I had 100% use of my arms, I’d take that over walking again,” he said. “Walking will get you from point A to point B but once you get there, without your arms, there’s really not a whole lot you can do.”
Jones’ next big goal: Ditch the wheelchair by Sept. 1. He’ll probably still have to use a walker, and he’s OK with that for now.
He’s determined on cooking again, too. He’s been in a test kitchen directing the creation of new dishes for future projects. He’s even given cooking tips to therapists during rehab sessions.
He hopes he can get back in the kitchen by the end of the year.
“I would love to get back to Columbus and get back to some kind of normal day,” he said. “I think about that every day. ...I miss the day-to-day interaction with the people that work with me, my customers and my friends. I miss all that.”