If there's anyone who can overcome the “freak event” of having a spinal stroke at age 21, friends and family say it's Jacoby Smith.
Before he headed to Vanderbilt University on a full scholarship, or earned his first A at Vandy in the complexities of computer programming, Smith was a star golfer, musician and student at Stafford High School—and its 2016 valedictorian. At his "second home," the Gauntlet Golf Club near Curtis Park, he bested his peers in 2014 and did the same to players of all ages the following year.
“I've had a lot of good students in the area over the last 30 years, but Jacoby just stands out because he's the whole package,” said Tom Lernihan, Smith's private golf coach in high school. “Besides being really smart and having a great personality to match, he's a really good athlete who works hard and comes from a great family.”
Lernihan was devastated to learn that Smith, who suddenly lost feeling in his lower body last month, was diagnosed with the rare condition of having a stroke of the spine. Only 1.25 percent of all strokes happen there, according to the National Institutes of Health.
But in the next breath, the coach and golf pro, who's checked on his star pupil every day since his hospitalization, was hopeful. “He's gonna get through this. I'm hoping it's a full recovery, but even if it's not, he's the kind of kid, he'll rise above the difficulties he's had and make it through.”
Smith said the same from his room at the VCU Medical Center Inpatient Rehabilitation in Richmond, where a flag of Tiger Woods hangs next to his bed.
“I'm essentially going to do everything I can to fight this,” Smith said. “I'm going to try to find a way to make myself be independent, and the muscles I have feeling in, I'm doing everything I can in physical therapy and in my free time … to get them stronger and get them back to where I was.”
Along the way, he'll be supported by the same community that helped the family rebuild after a 2016 fire destroyed their Stafford County home. Just as before, friends and neighbors of his parents, Zack and Barbie Smith—a musician and a physical education teacher—and Jacoby's younger brother, Davis, have offered up money and prayers, fellowship and food.
Groups held spaghetti dinners three years ago to replace furnishings lost in the fire; this time, they're picking up golf clubs to help cover medical bills.
In a matter of days, Kayla Weaver, director of player development at Gauntlet, organized a “Tee It Up for Jacoby Smith” tournament that's almost filled—even though it's summer and people are vacationing. The event is Friday, and teams can register through Thursday night.
“The community that's around Jacoby is just phenomenal,” Weaver said. “His friends and family, people are roaring for him, it's roars for Jacoby. It's so crazy to think we needed all the volume we could get and we got it.”
The Gauntlet also has a donation fund in place, and on Friday, members of the kitchen and beverage staff—high-school students a few years younger than the honoree—will donate their tips to it.
“For high school kids to learn the importance of rallying behind someone, that's pretty remarkable,” Weaver said.
'THE SCARIEST MOMENT'
Jacoby Smith finished his junior year at Vanderbilt in May and came home to Stafford, where he planned to spend the summer as a software integration intern in Manassas—and getting in as many rounds of golf as possible.
On June 19, he finished work and started swinging, but the pain in his back and shoulder made him stop. He woke up that morning hurting and figured he'd slept on it wrong. Or maybe it was a pinched nerve; he'd had those before and knew the unnatural twists and torques of golf didn't help matters.
Smith put ice on his back and tried to rest but the pain shot down to his hands.
“I was getting kind of scared, thinking this doesn't seem like what a pinched nerve feels like,” he said.
His father took him to Stafford Hospital. As the two approached the check-in desk, Jacoby Smith's legs gave out and a security guard got him a wheelchair.
“They kinda thought he was drunk, he's 21,” his mother said.
His condition worsened by the time he got to a bed in the emergency room.
“I didn't have much control of any part of my body, I really couldn't move at all,” said Jacoby Smith, who also had a cold and was having trouble breathing. “That was probably the scariest moment. I just had no idea what was going on.”
Neither did anyone else. When initial scans revealed no problems with the brain, medical officials recommended a specialized facility, and his parents chose VCU Medical Center. He was moved there June 20, “and we've been there ever since,” his mother said.
'A WAITING GAME'
A battery of tests ensued as doctors looked at his vital organs to see why the healthy young man, “strong as an ox,” according to his mother, had been paralyzed. A CT scan led to an MRI, followed by a spinal tap, and each ruled out one ugly possibility after another but offered no conclusive answers.
Meanwhile, some feeling had returned to his right side, so physical therapy began. But even before the official rehabbing, the patient came up with his own coping devices.
He taped a stylus to his finger and used the voice-to-text feature on his phone so he could keep in touch with the outside world. With no grip strength in his right hand, he couldn't hold a fork, so chunks of foam were wrapped around it until it conformed to his hand—and he could feed himself. His dad brought his trumpet and helped him place his fingers on the valves, hoping muscle memory would take over.
When a test showed a disruption of blood to the spinal cord had caused a stroke, the Smiths finally could put a name to the problem, but no one could say why it had happened. Maybe, it was just “a freak event,” as Jacoby Smith suggested.
But because doctors didn't know the cause, they weren't sure of his prognosis.
“He could get everything back or he could get some stuff back,” his mother said. “It's a waiting game with the body to see what happens.”
EYES ON THE PRIZE
Vanderbilt officials will allow the rising senior to participate in one fall session virtually. After that, Jacoby Smith hopes to return to the Nashville university in January and complete two other classes, using whatever modifications are needed.
His short-term goals are to regain use of his hands, which he'll need as a computer programmer, and to graduate with his class. He'll probably be at VCU through the first week of August.
The Smiths had discussed putting their son to a facility in Charlotte or Atlanta, but stayed in Richmond so he'd be close to what his mother calls “his people.”
That includes family, friends, former classmates from Stafford and current fraternity brothers at Vanderbilt, who've all been to his bedside.
“The support I've had from the entire Fredericksburg community and Stafford area has been awesome,” Jacoby Smith said. “It's been a great stream of visitors, and it's kept me occupied. I've been working five to six hours a day on therapy but it does get kind of quiet after that, and [having company] helps the day pass.”
Weaver came to the rehab facility so Jacoby Smith could help design Friday's tournament course, with his chosen challenges. It will be a Par 3 course and shorter than normal.
Jacoby Smith will be at the event, probably from about 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. to greet players. A VCU medical team will accompany him because it's a therapeutic outing.
He's excited to break out of the hospital for a while and visit the place that's been his favorite hangout since the seventh grade.
He's always been able to clear his head on a golf course, and hopes the therapists will rig something so he can go out in the golf cart, stand on the green “and take a swing if I can.”