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Going for the Goals

Ruth Aragon never pictured her life turning out this way, but she is thankful that it did.

An inspiring spirit who relentlessly pursues personal and professional goals, the 29-year-old Allentown resident is a warm, welcoming presence at the outpatient Neurorehabilitation desk on the upper level of the Good Shepherd Health & Technology Center.

“I would have never imagined myself…,” Ruth says, trailing off for a brief moment. “I feel like I’ve accomplished more now, post-injury, than I have before my injury.”

In 2011, Ruth, then only 19 years old, wasn’t so sure of her future. A former high school athlete, Ruth was paralyzed from the waist down after sustaining a complete spinal cord injury. In an instant, her life, her future, her independence, was shattered. “It was hard,” says Ruth. “It was basically learning how to restart your life all over again. I didn’t think there was a light at the end of the tunnel. The first year and a half was rough. I went from being super independent to being dependent on people doing pretty much everything for me. It was not how I wanted to live my life.”

Ruth was admitted to the Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital and began the hard work of rebuilding her life. Despite all of the obstacles mentally and physically, Ruth persevered and transitioned to outpatient care at the Health & Technology Center in Allentown. Ruth bonded with fellow patients, who, along with her family and Good Shepherd staff, helped flip her mindset, she says.

“Just having people who would be there for the long run made all the difference,” Ruth says of her close circle of support.  “They knew me at my best and they knew me at my worst. They pushed me to go back to school, trying to make the best out of the situation.”

Gradually, Ruth’s attitude evolved from despair to hope as her rehabilitation progressed with the help of some new technology at the time. In 2012, Ruth was one of Good Shepherd’s earliest users of the Ekso Bionics exoskeleton, robotic technology purchased by Good Shepherd with generous funding by the RJ Foundation. She is proud to have been the first female patient to use the Ekso.

The wearable robotic device allows people with lower extremity paralysis or weakness from spinal cord injury, stroke, traumatic accidents or other neurological conditions to stand and walk with a smooth, natural gait. A decade later, Ruth continues walking in the Ekso every week, just downstairs from her work station.

“It makes you feel like you’re on your own, that you’re walking again,” says Ruth, noting that she recently started walking with long braces which help her ambulate by locking and unlocking them on her own with help from a therapist.

Ruth didn’t just have goals for her therapy. One of her other life goals was to go back to school and work at Good Shepherd. Ruth lasered in on achieving it. In 2015, Ruth got her associate’s degree from McCann School of Business and Technology, graduating at the top of her class. The program required students to complete an externship, and Ruth knew just the place.

After completing her externship at Good Shepherd, Ruth volunteered at the Health & Technology Center. Faxes, sorting, stapling and filing paperwork, making copies for therapists, you name it, Ruth did it. Then, a position opened up. Ruth interviewed and got the job as a patient services representative.

Ruth hasn’t looked back. In fact, she is thriving. 

“Since day one, she has been such a top-notch employee,” says Frank Hyland, hospital executive director and administrator. “Ruth is detailed, determined, an ultimate team player and so collegial to patients and families. She takes so much pride in her work and sees to it that her responsibilities are always completed to the highest level.”

Ruth is an inspiration to employees and patients alike, says Sue Golden, administrative director of Neurorehabilitation. “Her injury has almost made her stronger now,” Sue says. “She sees obstacles as challenges and will find a way to do something with great determination.

When our patients see her in a chair, it inspires them to reach for the stars as well. She is able to help motivate others.”

After landing the job, Ruth focused on her next goal: buying and driving her first car post-injury. It became another box on her unofficial independence checklist. True to form, Ruth achieved that goal, too. With help from Good Shepherd’s Safe Driver Evaluation Program, Ruth received her driver’s license.

Next on her list? Living on her own in a wheelchair-accessible apartment. Check that box too. Since 2018, Ruth has been living independently.

“I have never been so proud as the day we moved Ruth into her own apartment,” says Sue. “She got there though true grit and determination.”

But Ruth wasn’t done setting goals for herself.

In 2020, through DeSales University’s ACCESS Program, Ruth got a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Even more impressive, she achieved this by taking night classes after working a full day at Good Shepherd.

“To this day, it’s still mind blowing,” says Ruth.

Staying active is a big part of Ruth’s life. She participates in ADA-friendly events, including 5Ks, kayaking and bicycle riding. She loves hitting the gym, putting on her headphones and working out for as long as two hours (“That’s my ‘me’ time,” she says). And just to prove she could, Ruth went on a cruise to Bermuda on her own. Three years ago, Ruth even went skydiving.

“I probably wouldn’t ever do it again,” she says, laughing, “but it was fun.”

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Ruth’s spinal cord injury, a milestone that is not lost on her. “It’s life-changing, not just for me but my family, too,” Ruth says. “Life and God have shown me that things are still possible. What matters most is how you think of yourself and see yourself. I think of myself the first year after my injury; I was feeling bad and
sorry for myself.”

And now?  “Now I tell everyone, ‘I’m the best,’ ” she says with a smile, adding, “I don’t want people to see me or define me because of a wheelchair since that has never stopped me from doing what I like. I want to show people that whether or not you have a disability, you can accomplish whatever you want as long as you have the right mindset, support and faith.”

To support Assistive Technology at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network, visit goodshepherdrehab.org/donate or contact the Development Office at 610-778-1075.