Myford Collins set numerous track and field records in junior high and high school and was a Texas All-Star, an All-American and an Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympics champion headed for the Olympics. Then, as an 18-year-old freshman at DeVry University in Irving, Texas, his life changed when a drunk driver ran a stop sign.
“I had the right of way, and as I entered the intersection I saw a blur coming right at me,” Collins recalls of the accident that took place on Nov. 12, 1979. “After he hit my car, I tried to get out on the driver’s side but my body just stopped, and I felt a numbness slowly rise up from my feet.”
After being cut out of the vehicle, Collins was in and out of consciousness while being transported to a Dallas acute-care hospital, where he was diagnosed with a C4-C5 incomplete spinal cord injury and paralyzed from the neck down. A month after the accident, Collins’ mother had him transferred to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. While there, he began experiencing muscle spasms and was able to move the index finger of his left hand; both were promising signs for recovery. After 30 days at Memorial Hermann-TMC, he was transferred to TIRR Memorial Hermann.
“Right after the nurse got me settled into my bed, my social worker, Ms. Carmen, came by to see me,” he recalls. “She welcomed me by saying, ‘Mr. Collins, we’ve been waiting and trying so hard to get you here, and now you’re finally here!’ It was very much a family environment – everyone from the nurses, doctors and even the phlebotomists were very encouraging.”
During the early days at TIRR, Collins was very quiet and focused on his recovery. Then one day on his way to therapy, he met a fellow TIRR patient.
“He was just 4 years old,” Collins says, “but the boy had a devastating injury: a bullet had penetrated his spine. I remember thinking that he would never know what it’s like to grow up as a regular child, but you couldn’t have told him that! He was rolling in his wheelchair like he didn’t have a care in the world and was always smiling and going on like nothing you’ve ever seen. He helped me realize how blessed I was. I was able to achieve so much before the accident that he would never have a chance to attempt.”
Collins’ first admission to TIRR was in January 1980, and over the next five years he had several other admissions and rounds of therapy. “I basically grew up at TIRR, and it’s been like a second home to me,” he says. “I’ve been blessed to have excellent doctors and a lot of outstanding therapists and nurses, who are probably spread across the world by now.”
During a stay at TIRR in 1985, a physician assistant approached Collins about speaking with another patient who was facing a difficult surgery. At first, he was hesitant.
“I didn’t know what I would say to this patient,” he recalls. “A lot of physicians, therapists, social workers, family and friends helped instill in me the belief that I could take care of myself, and I realized that I needed to give back. So I went to talk with the patient, and that was my first time to volunteer at TIRR.”
Over the years, Collins also has participated in local and national clinical trials conducted at the Spinal Cord Injury and Disability Research Center (SCIDR) at TIRR Memorial Hermann, a leader in SCI research. SCIDR is home to the Texas Model Spinal Cord Injury System, directed by Heather Taylor, PhD, a senior scientist at TIRR and an associate professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.
“Our mission at SCIDR is to improve functional recovery, health and quality of life for people like Myford and others with physical disabilities,” Dr. Taylor says. “SCIDR had been conducting research on SCI long before 1972, when it became among the first inpatient rehabilitation programs designated as a Model System of Care by the National Institute for Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR).”
Research at SCIDR focuses on optimizing acute and chronic care for people with spinal cord injury, facilitating active community involvement and access to care, improving quality of life and reducing the risk of secondary complications and conditions such as depression and chronic pain. Investigators at SCIDR have extensive experience developing and testing interventions to improve functioning, psychosocial health and quality of life across the lifespan.
In January 2021, Collins completed his 40th anniversary as a participant in research conducted at SCIDR. In 1982, he was able to stand independently for the first time after the accident. In 1999, he began living on his own again, and in 2000 he returned to school at the University of Houston, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. For the past seven years, he has worked as an academic advisor at Lone Star College. He also serves on the SCIDR Community Advisory Board, attending presentations and giving feedback about current and future research studies, to ensure that all research involves direct collaboration and input from community members with SCI.
Today, many of Collins’ track and field records still stand. “And so am I!” he says. “When people dedicate their lives and careers to helping you, the least you can do is stand firm on solid ground.
“I started this journey more than 40 years ago. What TIRR does is create success,” he adds. “I’ve met people from all over the world and have made many friendships. The people at TIRR fight to make changes so that people with disabilities don’t have to live life as second-class citizens. Just because something took place in your life and left you with a disability, you are not minimized. TIRR taught me you got to be yourself, love yourself and keep going.”