When Dennis Keener was 19 years old, his life was typical of a young man not far removed from high school. He had a girlfriend, a good job at a local machine shop, and a normal life as a McMinnville resident. Everything changed, however, the day he turned 20.
On his way home from visiting with friends, Keener fell asleep while driving and ran off the road, flipping his vehicle. Three weeks later, he awoke from a coma in a hospital to find he had no feeling in his lower body as a result of a spinal cord injury. His world had gone upside down in an instant.
Fast forward to now, nine years later, on the McMinnville campus of Motlow State Community College. There, on any given day, you will find a smiling and interactive sophomore, Dennis Keener, who is pursuing a degree in electrical engineering. The only difference is Keener is confined to a wheelchair after his life-changing injury.
“A lot of people think it’s a big deal, me going to school and being in a wheelchair,” said Keener outside the McMinnville campus library, “but I don’t. I just want to better myself. I don’t like being bored.”
The road that led Keener to attend Motlow was a long and challenging one, but thanks to hard work and determination, he is now making strides to improve his life by obtaining a post-secondary education.
“My grandpa always said an education is one thing no one can take away from you,” Keener said.
After his accident and his initial recovery period, Keener found himself struggling with his lack of independence. He did not go to therapy for the first few years, although eventually he did apply at the Tennessee Center for Rehabilitation in Smyrna.
As time went on, his relationship with his parents and girlfriend deteriorated, leaving him with doubt and anxiety.
“One night I was so frustrated and depressed,” Keener stated, “I prayed to God to ask if He would just send something my way. I told the Lord that if He would just give me something, no matter what it is, I will do it.”
The morning after his humble prayer, the phone rang at Keener’s bedside. It was the rehabilitation center in Smyrna calling. It had been almost three years since he had applied to go there.
“I looked at the caller ID, saw it was the center calling, and for a moment decided not to answer,” Keener said, “since I knew I would have to be moving from home if I went there, and I didn’t want to do that. But I remembered what I had promised the Lord the night before, so I answered it. They wanted to know if I was ready to begin my rehabilitation. I told them I was.”
Once at the rehabilitation center, Keener worked hard through therapy, five days a week for five months. He lost 60 pounds, gained strength in his arms and legs from working out, and made efforts to walk again. Finally, on the very last day of his stay, he stood up and took an unsteady, but definite, step with his left leg. Determined to achieve his goal, he then proceeded to walk a total of 32 feet across the room, much to the amazement and joy of the rehab staff.
After his stay at the rehabilitation center, Keener returned home to live with his parents for another year and a half, during which he continued working out and rehabbing, often going to the mall to do laps in his wheelchair. Hand controls were installed for his van and he began driving, which, “opened my world up,” he said.
He is now living independently again. Although still in a wheelchair, he has his own apartment, drives, and enjoys going to school at Motlow, where he finds much support from the faculty and staff.
According to one of his professors, Keener contributes frequently to classroom discussions, and is quick to make light of his situation in class through his sense of humor, something that has endeared him to instructors and classmates.
It is obvious Keener is determined to continue to better himself.
“My goal is to get my associate degree at Motlow, get a good job, and be successful,” he said.
When asked what advice he would give to someone in a situation similar to his, he said, “Keep a positive attitude. Don’t look at all the bad. Instead, pay attention to the small things in life, and know hard work will lead to something good. Sometimes you have to think outside the box to get something done. And don’t ever stop trying. As long as you keep on trying, you will think of a way.”