Steps for Shima: Six years after accident, amputee celebrating strides
By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector
Sunday, April 21, 2019
On Easter Sunday 2013, Shima Nixon was front-page news, but not the way that anyone would ever want to be.
On Good Friday, she stepped outside of her stalled car near the intersection of 10th and Elm streets after another car hit her, pinning her between the two. Within two days, she would lose her left leg above the knee. Four months later, infection would cost Nixon her right leg as well, leaving this former cheerleader a double amputee at age 21.
Since then, Shima has been taking steps to rebuild a life that is even better than the one she once knew. Next month, the woman who came home from the hospital in a wheelchair will walk across the stage at Georgia Southern University to receive her bachelor's degree in recreation therapy.
“Just looking over my life before my accident and after my accident, in these six years I've done a lot,” she said. “I moved to another state, I've traveled the country, things that I never imagined that I would do.”
In some ways, it is hard to imagine that Nixon is the same woman Helen Houston first saw at Vidant Medical Center in the spring of 2013.
“When I first went to see her every day, the room was dark,” said Houston, an occupational therapy clinical specialist. “She wasn't eating. She didn't want to get out of bed.”
When Houston was able to coax her out of her room, Nixon was fearful that people would stare at her. She always wanted to have a blanket over her wheelchair to hide the fact that she was an amputee.
“I was in so much pain physically and mentally and emotionally,” Nixon recalled. “I was just (asking) why and always questioning, 'Why did you let this happen to me? Why didn't you just let me die out there?’ All the time asking God why, just why?”
Nixon, the youngest of Pastor Pat Smith's four children, had grown up going to church almost every time the doors were open. But after graduating from Williamston High School and moving to Greenville, she decided she'd had enough.
“I just kind of strayed away,” Nixon said. “Then I got in a car accident, and it just changed my life because I could have died. I remember waking up and I had tubes in my mouth so I couldn't talk. ... I felt that my left leg was gone, and I remember the tears running down my face and thanking God for being alive but still being sad.”
Friend Rebecca Griffin recalls the shock of seeing Nixon a few days after her accident.
“We didn't know if she was even going to survive,” Griffin said. “The moment I saw her I was like (if) this girl fights through this, she can fight through anything. I didn't even realize how much she had ahead of her at that point.”
Griffin launched “Steps for Shima” on social media to help keep friends updated on Nixon's progress and to raise funds to help with her expenses.
Before the accident, Nixon was working and taking classes at Beaufort Community College with plans to become a nurse. Now it looked as if she would have to start over.
Life as an amputee meant having to relearn even the most basic things. Walking with prosthetics, driving, cooking, shopping, even taking a shower required new skills.
In the early days, Houston went with Nixon practically everywhere. She accompanied her to the mall to teach her how to hold her bags while getting lunch at the food court. She went with Nixon to Piggly Wiggly when she returned to work as an office assistant.
“I think within two weeks of her being home, she had gone back to work,” Houston said. “It's her internal motivation. She's just got that internal drive that pushes her to be the best she can be. Once I had seen that spark in her, I wasn't surprised that she wanted to keep going.”
Another thing that propelled Nixon was the support she received through Steps for Shima. As Griffin continued posting updates of her friend's progress, more friends began to comment and offer encouragement.
“I realized how much support I had,” Nixon said. “Just to see how many people say, 'Hey, Shima, you inspire me.' That inspires me to know that I'm inspiring someone else.”
During her stay at the rehabilitation center, Nixon began attending an amputee support group. She also was introduced to Support Team for Active Recreation, known as STAR. Nixon accompanied the group on a beach retreat focused on adaptive sports. She learned that being an amputee didn't have to stop her from playing basketball or going swimming. She also learned about the recreation therapy assistant program at Pitt Community College, where she enrolled in 2014.
Two years later, Nixon received her associate's degree. But securing an internship proved to be a bigger hurdle. She applied all over the country, but repeatedly was turned away.
“In my cover letter, I explained that I was an amputee,” she said. “You can't just like not tell them.”
When Rockdale County Parks and Recreation called, she traveled alone to Conyers, Ga., just outside of Atlanta, for an interview, driving a car that was not equipped with hand controls. Nixon equates driving with prosthetic legs to pushing the gas and brake pedals while wearing high heels.
“I don't have ankles so my foot doesn't flex,” she said. “It's just kind of like I have to feel the pressure underneath my foot.”
At her new job, Nixon had to demonstrate that she could stand on her own as a therapeutic recreation leader and camp counselor working with children with developmental and intellectual disabilities. She also served as a supervisor for recreation therapy students from Georgia Southern, where Nixon enrolled in 2017 to complete her undergraduate degree.
While in school in Georgia, Nixon continued to serve as a certified peer visitor with Vidant, offering encouragement to other amputees struggling to adjust to life without a limb.
“Before I became an amputee, I knew one other amputee,” she said. “Now that I am an amputee, I see amputees everywhere.
“Even though I'm far away, they still call me,” she said. “I am able to go in (in person or via Facetime) and tell them, 'Hey, I was once in your shoes, and now I'm a recreational therapist.'”
Following her graduation on May 10, she will move to Winston-Salem to complete a clinical internship at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, where she hopes to be able to introduce adaptive sports to other amputees.
“That's what I love about rec therapy. It's based upon inclusion, not leaving anyone out,” Nixon said. “If you want to play basketball in your wheelchair, yes, I'll teach you how. ... If you want to learn how to hike as an amputee, it's going to take us awhile, but I'll teach you how to do it.”
Nixon also is working to turn Steps for Shima into a nonprofit organization that will provide encouragement and support for other amputees who want to become active. She would like for the organization to be able to help amputees purchase prosthetics for running and other active pursuits. These items can cost tens of thousands of dollars and are considered “luxuries” that are not covered by most insurance.
Within a few years, she plans to move to Illinois or Pennsylvania to pursue a graduate degree in prosthetics and orthotics.
“I never thought that I would be graduating from college with a recreation therapy degree and thinking about moving to another state to do a graduate program in prosthetics and orthotics. (A few years ago) I didn't even know what prosthetics and orthotics was,” she said, laughing.
It is one of many discoveries she has made along the journey that has included golf, water skiing and rollerskating. Today, when she tells her story, it is not about what she lost but what she has gained.
“There's so much more to my story,” she said. “Before I was putting so many limits on my life but I didn't realize I was.
“I can honestly say that I've done more things after I became an amputee than I have done in the 21 years of life before I became an amputee. … I feel like I'm braver.”
Griffin has enjoyed seeing her friend stepping out to try new things, from traveling and public speaking to riding all-terrain vehicles.
“She totally flipped the whole script,” Griffin said. “She's done hundreds of things that she wouldn't necessarily do before. She's a totally different person for the better, for the best really. She just used it to propel her life in all the best ways.”