OKEECHOBEE — Just one month shy of the third anniversary of the accident that changed his life forever, Justin Rhodes says he wouldn’t change a thing about his life even if he could. Justin was born in Fort Pierce and raised in Okeechobee. After high school, he worked at The Okeechobee Correctional Institute for eight and a half years as a correction’s officer and as a sergeant. He left in 2015 because he just wanted more out of life, he said. Not that he didn’t like his job; he was just ready for something different. He wasn’t really sure what he wanted to do but was hired on the spot by Lakeland Harley-Davidson and worked there for about three and a half months as a salesman. He has always loved to talk, he said, so sales was fun for him.
But, on July 17, 2016, he was involved in a motorcycle accident and all he knows is he woke up one day, and he wasn’t sure what happened or how long he was asleep, and he couldn’t speak. After a few days, through speech therapy, he began to learn to speak again. He is not sure how long it took because he had a traumatic brain injury, and his perception of time was not clear, but he has been coming back more and more, and he thanks God every day, he said.
He was extremely weak on the right side of his body from his face to his leg, and that was because the injury was on the left hemisphere. He is right-handed, so it was a blast to learn to write again, he said. When he first woke up, he thought he was still in Central Florida, but by that time, he was in Atlanta and had been “asleep” for a little over a month. “It’s been a wild ride. That’s for sure,” he said.
The wreck happened four months before the birth of his first child, his oldest daughter, Kaydence. He was still in Atlanta, going through rehab. She was born on Nov. 10, and he did not get to meet her until Thanksgiving, but he did get to watch her birth via video call. One of his first goals during physical therapy was to be able to hold a bottle so he could feed his new baby girl, he said.
His girlfriend, Katie, who is now his wife, stood by him through everything. He considers her his absolute hero. It’s not uncommon for friends or family to leave you high and dry when things like this happen, he said. “She more than earned my last name.” They now have a second daughter, Kelsee, who will be 2 years old in October.
After a total of five months in the hospital, he was discharged and came back to Okeechobee. By that time, he was no longer in a wheelchair. When he arrived in Okeechobee, he was using a walker and soon graduated to a four-point cane, followed by a single-point cane. Finally, he was able to move on to his Ford F150! It was wonderful to be able to drive again, he said. Not because he wanted his freedom so much as he didn’t like to inconvenience other people all the time. His wife taught him to drive again. They practiced on the property of a family friend who is like a mother to him, and after a couple months, he was back on the highway.
Justin began taking college classes in May 2018 and is getting all As and Bs. His declared major is occupational therapy. He loves every discipline of therapy, he said. His therapy team gave him the tools to take back his life, and he wants to be a part of doing that for someone else.
“The feeling that results from that can’t be bought,” he said. By next summer, he should be ready to apply for the physical therapy program.
Recently, he was selected to go to Gainesville to participate in a student panel for the student success team, a subsidiary of the Florida Department of Education. He was one of six students selected statewide to be a panelist for the Math Re-Design Institute. “It was a complete honor,” he said. Even before the accident, he would never have dreamed he would be involved in something like that. One of the things he told the audience was that he feels the things he is learning are awakening his mind more and more, and he welcomes the challenge.
For the last nine months, he has worked as a rehabilitation technician at the Laurel Pointe Health and Rehabilitation Center. Not only does he enjoy the job, but he hopes the work experience will help him later when it is time to apply for the physical therapy program.
Justin’s mother, Priscilla Williams, said, “We are so proud of him. He never ceases to amaze us on a daily basis. We are so thankful to God and the wonderful people of Okeechobee and our family who continue to stand behind Justin throughout his journey.”
His friend Jim Mitchell said, “Justin is an inspiration because of the way he has handled adversity. He is a good man, pure and simple.”
His biological mother, Tammy Lynn, said, “Justin is considerate, polite, helpful, caring and considerate. He continues to push on and to rehab himself in a town where the therapy he needs is not available. He has managed to surpass by far what he was projected to do.”
Justin has absolutely no complaints about the amount of time his recovery has taken or how much progress he has made. He thanks God for everything, he said. “The support of our beautiful city means everything. I love my home and the way they all come together like they do for everyone. I could have never imagined that I could be on the receiving end of this — the love, the support, the encouragement — still today. Support is huge for anyone going through any disability, and I use disability lightly because that is what it is referred to as, but to me it is not a disability. It is only a reason to try harder, and I thank God for that too.”