It started out as a beautiful, warm August afternoon for Dr. Jim Tidwell, surrounded by friends and family, including his wife, Jennie, and their three kids, Emmy Lou, Caleb, and Sally. After finishing an intense game of volleyball with his buddies, it was time to take a refreshing dip in the lake that waited at the end of a slip-n-slide. But when Dr. Tidwell did not resurface, his nearby friends and family knew something was wrong, and quickly sprang into action.
Ever the calm and collected problem solver, a trait that served Dr. Tidwell very well in years of helping patients through difficult times, he immediately held his breath and waited for his son Caleb and some other friends to pull him from the bottom of the lake to safety.
A CT scan later revealed Dr. Tidwell had struck his head, causing a C7/T1 neck injury that resulted in paralysis in his arms and legs.
Doctors Janae and Ben Kittinger, longtime personal friends and professional partners with Tidwell, were on their way to the party when they got the phone call informing them about the accident. “It was just a freak accident,” Janae explained. “Lots of other people had been going down the slip-n-slide the whole afternoon, and there was never any problem.”
Both plastic surgeons, Drs. Janae and Ben Kittinger have been friends with Jim for over 10 years, back to their surgical training days in Texas. After starting her surgical practice at Owensboro Health, Janae quickly recruited Jim to join her in practice so they could tackle difficult, complex reconstructive surgery cases. “These types of surgeries go much smoother and quicker with two experienced surgeons. Jim spent extra time and training to become an expert in microsurgery, even completing international fellowships,” Janae remembers. “I knew Owensboro Health and the Owensboro community would be the perfect place for Jim and his family to thrive both at home and at work.”
Immediately following the accident, Dr. Tidwell was taken to Owensboro Health Regional Hospital, where he had emergency surgery to put his fractured spine back in the correct alignment. He subsequently spent two weeks in the ICU until getting transferred to the renowned Shepherd Center Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Rehabilitation in Atlanta, Georgia.
Shepherd Center staff told Jennie that patients usually spend about two months in inpatient rehabilitation before returning home to continue recovering. In most cases it could be a full year before patients with spinal cord injuries have any idea what function they will get back.
Jennie’s response: “If it can be accomplished with hard work, Jim will get it done.”
At the time of this writing, Dr. Tidwell can move his shoulders, elbows and wrists, and he was starting to get some finger movement back. A video posted on September 3rd shows Jim flexing his fingers the tiniest little bit.
Turning Out for Tidwell
In the meantime, Tidwell’s friends, patients, and family continue to rally around Jim and his family. Janae and Ben set up a GoFundMe account to help the family with medical expenses. Within two days, the entire goal of $100,000 had been pledged, and funds continue to come in. At the time of this writing, that amount surpassed $150,000, raised by 454 people in one month thanks to 2,700 shares generating 76,000 views.
The Kittingers also started a Facebook page called #TidwellsTribe to keep friends, family, and supporters updated on Jim’s progress. There is also an ever-increasing list of community fundraising events. “We couldn’t do any of this alone, it takes an army,” said Ben. “Or in this case…a Tribe.”
There has been a huge #TurnoutForTidwell movement. “The outpouring of support in this community has been amazing,” Janae said. “Local businesses and restaurants are holding fundraisers, several are selling #TidwellsTribe t-shirts, local jewelry artists are selling bracelets, and people are even hosting online sales parties like Scentsy. We can’t thank everyone enough for loving and supporting Jim and his family.”
Your Vibe Attracts Your Tribe
“Anyone who has met Jim or received care from him knows they are not just an acquaintance or another patient. They are fast friends and almost immediately family members,” Ben Kittinger said. “Jim has always gone out of his way to show so many of his patients how much he cares, loves and respects them.” According to Janae, it’s Jim’s nature to be “a very giving person, always thinking of others.”
His mission trips to Guatemala with Faith in Practice for the last seven years to help patients with cleft lips and palates is just one of many examples. Rev. Linda McCarty, President and CEO of Faith in Practice, recently posted on their Facebook page that “Jim Tidwell is the best of Faith in Practice. Compassion and grace and love in its best form.”
Both in the operating room and in his personal time, Jim has devoted his life to making other people’s lives better.
Now the community is rising up to give back to Dr. Tidwell.
The Kittingers say the money raised by the GoFundMe project and other fundraising efforts will be used by the Tidwell family to help offset Jim’s medical expenses and to provide equipment such as a wheelchair-accessible vehicle. The house is also being remodeled because his bedroom is currently on the second floor.
Beyond monetary pledges and community fundraisers, the outpouring continues through in-kind donations as well. “We’ve had an abundance of contractors volunteering their time and expertise to help with the house modifications. Family and friends of others with spinal cord injuries have reached out to help us find the best places to get medical equipment and share helpful tips and things they wish they had known,” says Dr. Adrian Yeiser, a family friend spear-heading the home renovation projects for the Tidwells.
And then there is the meal train, an online meal sign-up where friends and supporters in Owensboro have provided a meal to Jim’s family every night since the accident. To keep Tidwell’s kids in their routines, Louise (Jennie’s mom) and Tomi (Jim’s mom) are taking two-week shifts watching the kids and managing the home while Jim and Jennie are in Atlanta.
Down at Shepherd Center, Tidwell’s trademark smile has continued to glow despite numerous hard days and nights, especially when a group of friends who call themselves “the running buddies” carpooled from Owensboro to Atlanta for a visit during Labor Day weekend.
One photo on #TidwellsTribe shows the running buddies huddled around Jim’s bedside as he cradles a football in the crook of his elbow. The football represents the tradition at Shepherd Center that the outgoing “Mayor of Shepherd,” a patient who has completed their rehabilitation stay, signs their name to the football and then passes it on to a new mayor of their choosing. This new mayor is a person who shows a positive attitude and uplifting spirit, working hard in the gym and bringing out the best in the other patients at the center. Jim Tidwell proudly accepted his selection as new Mayor of Shepherd, gladly displaying the autographed football of encouragement until it’s time to pass it on.
Home Is Where Your Tribe Is
As Jim continues on the long journey to his new normal, over 2,500 #Tribesters are following his progress on Facebook. The list of fundraising events and activities in Owensboro continues to grow, so be sure to check #TidwellsTribe for the latest updates.
Through social media, #TidwellsTribe has expanded the sense of community across the country and internationally. Some friends even reached out to #TidwellsTribe from as far away as Germany.
But Owensboro is home and before you know it, Jim’s going to be right back here doing amazing things and continuing to inspire people.
Just like he always has.