Five Years Later
Photo by Jamie Plain
Five years ago, Dr. Jim Tidwell suffered a life-changing spinal cord injury. Immediately, the community wanted to know what it could do for someone who had not lived in Owensboro long but had made an impact as a reconstructive surgeon, as well as through Faith in Practice, an organization for mission trips to Guatemala to repair cleft palates.
“It was unreal how much love they showed,” he said. “Still, when I meet people, I get hugs and people telling me, ‘I prayed for you.”
Tidwell joined the plastic surgery team at Owensboro Health in 2014 and found success in his job and friendships throughout the community and his religious community.
“In the time we were here, we really embraced the community,” Tidwell said. “We enjoyed camping and hiking with our young kids…just being outdoors. We camped at the state parks and our backyard backs up to the Greenbelt, and there wasn’t a day we weren’t on it. We even built a bridge to make it easier.”
When the accident happened, Tidwell said his mom asked about the family returning “home,” which for Tidwell was Utah and for his wife, Texas.
“But for us, this is home,” he said.
Through fundraising efforts, over $150,000 was raised for the family to help with the immediate needs and changes that would be necessary for Tidwell’s rehabilitation and home and transportation modifications.
Tidwell’s truck is something that stops people in their tracks when they see him getting in and out. The camper opens on a hinge to reveal a crane that will take Tidwell from his wheelchair to the lowered cab seat. The process takes less than 10 minutes, and while that seems quick, Tidwell jokes that it isn’t in the rain or cold weather.
The cervical spine injury left Tidwell nearly paralyzed and with little strength in his hands, resulting in quadriplegia.
“There wasn’t an idea of the future, but I was really fortunate to have the support of the hospital,” he said of his employer.
Since hand strength would be necessary as a reconstructive surgeon, Tidwell returned to Owensboro Health in a leadership role as vice president for population health in 2019.
“They said to me, ‘We are going to use you in a leadership position,” he said. “My kids joke and say it is a pity position, but I had enough respect from [the hospital administrators] to create a focus trying to do what we can to help people be healthy outside these walls and clinics and to be involved in health fairs.”
Tidwell’s focus has been on groups where there is disparity and on those who often feel marginalized. He serves on steering committees and leadership teams within the healthcare system and says they benefit from having a physician on the team.
“My personal values are the core commitments of Owensboro Health – Excellence, Innovation, Integrity, Respect, Service and Teamwork,” he said. “I have a loyalty to the organization and said, ‘I can do that; I can be the leader.”
Tidwell has used the information he has gained serving in this role to create an endowed fund to help others in similar, low-mobility situations.
He and his wife, Jennie, created the fund to honor disabled individuals by purchasing wheelchair cushions to avoid pressure-related wounds, something Tidwell treated as a surgeon, and is vulnerable to developing himself. The cushions cost around $450, and insurance companies and Medicare cover it based on time and not wear.
“We wanted to do this as a show of our heartfelt and sincere gratitude,” he said. “As I went back to work and am compensated as a physician and administrative leader, it didn’t feel right to have people donate to me and now be in this position.”
As part of the OH Foundation, he said this will be something that will live on its own and for the future.
With the five-year anniversary mark of the accident, Tidwell said it is a time of reflection, and that prompts feelings of gratitude.
“My wife changed her life to revolve around me to a degree,” he said. “Now, since I am more independent, she is doing more…she is even in clogging classes.”
Tidwell said his kids grew up really fast because of his accident, but he said he holds the key to having great kids.
His son is currently on a missionary trip for the next two years and his oldest daughter is applying for one. His youngest daughter will be a junior in high school and is very active.
As for his leadership in the hospital, Tidwell continues to tackle the challenge of the future of healthcare and the paradigm shift of the fee-for-service model.
“We need to make the patient healthy and help as we go through this transition to a value-based model,” he said. “We need to see a healthy population and fix the metrics we [the United States] lag behind in. Those are the focus areas we are working on.”
Tidwell still enjoys being outdoors, but said much has changed for the ease of access. He said travel is tough because of the special chairs and items he needs, but he really would like to return to doing activities his family enjoyed prior to the accident.
And with a son in Spain, a daughter applying for mission work and one graduating in two years, Tidwell just might have the opportunity for travel.