Like many millennials, Johnathan Dodd has his own apartment.
It’s a small one-bedroom place, but it represents so much more for the 26-year-old Spartanburg County native. It gives him a sense of independence.
If that were all there was to Dodd’s story, it wouldn’t be particularly unique. After all, it’s not unusual for young adults to crave their own living space.
But how Dodd’s duplex apartment in Moore is outfitted to allow him to function on his own and, more importantly, how Dodd came to have a physical disability is an extraordinary tale.
Dodd is bound to a wheelchair, having been paralyzed from the neck down from injuries sustained in an automobile accident nearly nine years ago. He now has the ability to move his hands and arms, which allows him to use an app installed on an iPad to perform everyday tasks in what can be called his “smart” home.
At the touch of the screen, Dodd can open his front door to allow visitors to enter.
Other touch screen options give him the ability to set his thermostat and to turn his lights and television on or off.
“I didn’t realize it was going to be that easy,” Dodd said of the technology-driven Simply Home products that allow him to lead a somewhat normal life. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s it?’ You just touch (the screen) and it does the rest.”
Dodd is living on his own thanks to the help of the Charles Lea Center, a Spartanburg-based nonprofit agency that provides services to individuals with disabilities and special needs.
As part of its HOMES (Helping Others Manage Environment Safely) program, the staff at the Charles Lea Center worked to install the “smart” technology in Dodd’s apartment and is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week should he need assistance.
With the touch of an icon on an iPad screen — which is mounted to his wheelchair — or a phone call, Dodd can get someone from the Charles Lea Center facility across the street to come help him.
“If it wasn’t for (the Charles Lea Center), I’d probably be in a nursing home,” Dodd said. “They mean a lot because they did a lot. Sure, I just call them when I need them, which may not seem like a lot, but they gave me a lot of independence just by saying, ‘Hey, we’re here if you need us.’ Just that right there has made the biggest difference in my life.”
Dodd still has someone come by the apartment each day to help him with such tasks as eating and bathing, but he spends every night and much of the weekend all by himself.
Before the Charles Lea Center outfitted the apartment with “smart” technology, Dodd had to have someone with him at all times. He said he’s been in the apartment for five years, but he’s only been on his own for the past two.
“Having someone around you 24/7 gets old. It doesn’t matter who it is,” Dodd said. “If there’s always someone there, it gets old, eventually. This is just another step to me being independent. I’ve got to be on my own.”
That Dodd is able to live by himself is a remarkable achievement given what he’s gone through medically. Following the automobile accident that paralyzed him, Dodd has had multiple surgeries related to his neck and stomach. He’s also battled through double pneumonia and survived Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
During a visit to the Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia for surgery a few years ago, Dodd told the staff he wanted them to help him find an apartment in which he could live on his own.
“They said, ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ And I was like, ‘I’ll show you I can do it. I know I can.’ …. I basically ended up telling them, ‘I’m not leaving here until y’all find me somewhere to stay.’ So, they did. They found me this place.”
Dodd, who grew up in the Campobello area, had just graduated from Chapman High School a couple of weeks earlier when, on the night of June 16, 2007, his life changed forever.
He and some buddies had gone to a dirt track race in North Carolina. It started to rain, causing a delay in the action, and Dodd decided he’d rather go home than wait for the race to resume. He called his girlfriend to come pick him up.
On the way home, the car his girlfriend was driving came upon an unexpected curve and crashed. The car went down an embankment and flipped, leaving Dodd trapped underneath. His girlfriend escaped with minor injuries and was able to get someone to call for help.
An ambulance took Dodd a mile down the road to a church parking lot, where a helicopter was waiting to transport him to Spartanburg Regional Medical Center. Even though he couldn’t move his body, he remained conscious through the entire ordeal.
Dodd recalled, “I just kept thinking the whole time, ‘Don’t go to sleep. You’ve got to stay awake. Whatever you do, don’t close your eyes.’” He feared he might not wake up.
In the hospital, he came close to death. To keep his lungs from collapsing, he had to be induced into a coma that lasted nearly a month. After waking up from the coma, he remembers a doctor in the intensive care unit saying, “This is all you’re ever going to be for the rest of your life.”
Dodd continued, “(The doctor) said, ‘You’ll never be able to move anything from your neck down.’ He said, ‘You may be able to shrug your shoulders one day, but that’s it.’
“And this is making me really mad. I’m like, ‘Ugh, this guy doesn’t know who he’s talking to,’ because I know what I’ve done been through just to be here.
“I’ve always been stubborn. I mean, ‘You’re going to tell me I’m not going to do anything? No, I’m going to show you.’”
Dodd’s independent living is proof of his determination. He refuses to take no for an answer.
“Jonathon is a fighter, and not only is he a fighter, he’s an advocate,” said Laconda Moore, who has worked with Dodd for the last year and a half as director of community transitional living for the Charles Lea Center.
“He advocates for himself, and he advocates for others who need support like him. The things he’s gone through and to still have that tenacity to continue on is just admirable. He always says that we help him, but he really inspires and helps us.”
In his home, Dodd is able to live like most anyone else his age. His television is typically tuned to sports, and he’ll sometimes have friends over to watch Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) bouts.
He’s a big fan of the University of South Carolina football team, and his bedroom walls are adorned with autographed photos of former Gamecock standouts Connor Shaw, Jadeveon Clowney and Marcus Lattimore, the latter of whom played with his cousin, Chas Dodd, at Byrnes High School.
Dodd said he’s always been into sports and that he played football, wrestled and ran track while at Chapman High School. Not being as physically active as he’d like to be has been an emotional challenge for him.
“Everybody who has something like this happen to them — it doesn’t matter who you are — it’ll really take the wind out of you at the beginning and you’re going to be down,” Dodd said. “But there comes a point where it’s like a V in the road and you’re either going to say, ‘All right, I’m going to stay here, down in the dumps, taking pity on myself or I’m going to go this way, and I’m going to get on with my life and I’m going to make something of myself.’”
And it’s not like Dodd simply whittles away his alone time watching sports and movies. He’s also been taking online courses at Spartanburg Community College.
In the driveway outside his apartment is a van, which is used to take him wherever he wants to go. The decorative tag on the front of the vehicle features the Superman logo, which he also has tattooed on his chest.
“That basically says you’re not going to hold me down. I’m going to figure out a way,” he said.
Looking out the window at the van, Dodd is reminded of another goal he hopes to achieve.
“I’m scheming, I guess you’d say, trying to figure out a plan of how to get another van that I can drive,” he said. “That’s one of my next goals — to drive. If I can drive, that’ll do a lot, too.”
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