September 1, 2014  

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Southern Miss Alumnus Offers Inspirational Message in New Book 'Still Standing'

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Dwight Owens signs a copy of his memoir, “Still Standing,” for Methodist Rehabilitation Center physical therapist Mary Smith. (Submitted photo)

Book signings typically take place in bookstores.

But Hot Coffee native Dwight Owens wanted to share his life story with those who helped give the tale a happy ending.

That’s why a recent signing for Owens’ memoir “Still Standing” took place at Methodist Rehabilitation Center (MRC). Staff at the Jackson hospital helped Owens reclaim his independence after he was paralyzed in a car crash caused by a drunk driver.

“Methodist Rehabilitation Center is a remarkable place, and it deserves every bit of reputation it has earned across the country,” he said. “They taught me to push myself as hard as I could to get as far as I could.”

Owens worked with writer Jonathan W. Praet to create “Still Standing,” a book Praet describes as “the triumph of one man’s indomitable spirit over crushing adversity.”

The book begins on Aug. 5, 2005, a Friday full of promise for Owens. The 22-year-old University of Southern Mississippi (USM) graduate had gotten his dream job as a teacher/coach at Collins Middle School and had spent the morning prepping his classroom for the start of school. 

As he headed home on a rain-drenched highway, Owens noticed a large Chevy truck rapidly bearing down on his bumper. The drunk driver rammed into Owens’ Chrysler Sebring convertible, and the car plunged into a steep gully and wrapped around a tree.

By the time rescuers pried Owens from the mangled wreckage using the Jaws of Life, he was “a whisper away from death.” “I coded twice after the accident and doctors were ready to call my death,” he said. “But I came back … against all odds.”

Owens suffered six broken ribs, punctured lungs and fractured vertebrae. The force of the crash even pushed his liver into his chest cavity. But the most life changing injury was the severed spinal cord that left Owens paralyzed from the waist down.

After undergoing several surgeries to repair internal injuries, Owens expected to start rehab after one more procedure to repair shoulder damage. But Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg was forced to evacuate patients in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and Owens was transferred to Methodist Rehab on Sept. 2.

“It was a blessing in disguise,” he said. “Katrina took me right where I needed to go, and my life began to change dramatically for the better in its aftermath.”

MRC is a private, non-profit rehabilitation hospital that treats more spinal cord injury patients than any other facility in Mississippi. And its experienced staff knew what Owens was capable of even before he did.

“When we look at new patients, we see the person they can be,” said Methodist Rehab physical therapist Mary Smith. “We know they can be independent, we just have to convince the patient of it.”

The convincing requires staff to push patients to improve, and the chapter about Owens’ time at MRC is aptly called “The Grind.”  “Their philosophy is tough love, with the emphasis on the tough part,” Owens said.

To rise to the challenge, the young teacher attacked therapy with the same work ethic that made him a standout high school football player and a President’s List scholar at USM. “He would say: What do I need to do to get better?” Smith said. “He wanted to learn.”

And that learning didn’t stop after the staff wrapped up therapy for the day. Because Methodist Rehab groups patients with similar injuries on the same floor, Owens also benefitted from friendships with patients who were further along in the recovery process.

Ryan Estep of Florence, another patient with a football background, took Owens under his wing soon after he arrived. And much of the humor in “Still Standing” comes from their exploits. The two competitive spirits kept up a steady stream of trash-talking, and their one-upmanship incited both to excel in the therapy gym. (Never mind that the staff dashed their attempts to get into a weight-lifting war.)

Owens said Estep taught him how important a positive attitude can be. And soon, Owens was also welcoming patients into the camaraderie of the hospital’s spinal cord injury program. 

“I would sit for hours with people who had only just realized that their new best friend was their wheelchair, and we would share our stories,” he said. “We would encourage each other, keep track of each other’s progress, relish our victories and simply find solace in knowing that we were not alone.”

Realizing his experiences could inspire others to persevere, Owens left rehab vowing to reach out. “My goal is to help lift the spirits of people with disabilities and to be an example to the world at large by proving that a disability is just a setback, not a life sentence,” he says.

Today, Owens spends his time mentoring the newly disabled, tutoring youth in his community and speaking out about the dangers of drunk driving. “You never know who is listening to you or who you can help rehabilitate,” he said. “I do this to help empower people.”

In 2010, he was honored with the “Spirit of Service” award provided by the Corporation for National and Community Service and was a recipient of the “Cabot Celebrity” award provided by Cabot Creamery.

The Cabot festivities introduced Owens to Praet, a professional writer who also knows what it’s like to have your life upended by a disability. Praet has severe eye degradation resulting from a condition called wet macular degeneration.

“My vision is blurred and splotchy all the time, and it makes it difficult to clatter away on the computer and read what I’m writing,” he said. But Praet says his almost year-long collaboration with Owens helped him see his own struggles as “nothing more than a bump in the road of life.”

“Some days are better than others, but every day was a good day when I got my prescription filled with a dose of Dwight’s spirit,” he said.

Copies of “Still Standing” can be bought at the Methodist Rehabilitation Center gift shop or by visiting www.stillstandingwithdwight.com. Excerpts from the book can be read in the notes section of Methodist Rehab’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/MethodistRehab.