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Robert "Bobby" Willis

"SGMC's Rehabilitation Facility got me back to the game and life I enjoy living."
- Bobby Willis, Football Referee 

One Patient’s Determination over Paralysis

When football referee Bobby Willis stepped on the field in 2009, he didn’t realize the events of that evening would change his life forever. During that game, Willis was hit by a football player and paralyzed.

"I couldn't feel anything from the neck down,” Willis explained. “I wasn’t scared at that point – I was more concerned about finishing the game. I thought the problem would pass and I would be able to get up.”

When Emergency Medical Services arrived, Willis was transported to an area hospital and admitted to Intensive Care. An MRI revealed that a bone spur growing on Willis’ spine had ruptured. The fragments of the bone spur were embedded in his spine, causing paralysis. Surgeons were able to successfully remove the bone fragments, but Willis remained paralyzed. 

Less than a week after the injury, Willis was transferred to the Rehab Unit at South Georgia Medical Center to complete weeks of rehabilitation. When admitted, Willis couldn’t walk or feed himself, he was barely able to move his extremities. Rehab Services Director Paivi Parssinen said that from Willis' first day there, he was certain he would walk again and vowed to be refereeing games within a year.

Willis spent every hour possible in the Rehab gym. “I was scheduled for an hour and a half of therapy twice daily, but I told myself, if I’m going to be here…I’m going to be doing something to help myself get better," he said. "The Rehab staff really cared about me, they encouraged me. Sometimes it was one of them saying that I couldn’t do something, or that it was too soon, that pushed me to prove them wrong.”

Parssinen says, “Mr. Willis' determination was unlike anything I had ever experienced. His good humor and spirit inspired other patients and the staff.” 

Being an optimist, he told the high school football coaches he would be back on the field for the Lowndes/Thomas County Central game, and he was! Now he's back on the field, doing what he loves. Willis gives God the credit for his recovery, but he also knows that God’s work was administered through the skilled hands of healthcare professionals. Willis doesn’t question his injury, in fact, he is grateful for it. “The neurosurgeon told me that if the bone spur had continued to grow unnoticed, it would have gotten large enough to pop my spinal cord. I would have died.”

Willis says he saw the player coming toward him and could have moved out of the way but a little voice told him to stay put. Willis knows his life was spared for a purpose. 

Coincidentally, the day before his injury, Willis finished reading a book about a Major League baseball player who lost his arm to cancer. “The story was so fresh on my mind it inspired me. I used the ball player’s experiences with depression and anxiety to help me get through this. There's no doubt God put that book in my hand.”

Willis hopes his experiences will help others. As a husband, dad, granddad, correctional employee, friend and sports enthusiast, he continues to be an inspiration to all he meets, both on and off the field. “Don’t give up and have faith,” he said. “It’s been tough, but a blessing all the way through.”

Adapted from a 2010 print article