1205DEERaudMike Eberhardt of West Hall talks about recovering from a spinal cord injury in 2000 that was the result of a 30-foot fall from a tree stand.
Mike Eberhardt recalls those dark days well.
Tied to a wheelchair as he left Atlanta's Shepherd Center in early 2001, he had no feeling from the waist down. His legs were virtually useless.
The lifelong West Hall resident pulled his doctor aside and asked him point blank, "Is this it? Am I going to get any better or am I just going to sit here?" He said the doctor thought for a couple of moments and said, "This is pretty much what you've got."
"I came home from the hospital and ... a couple of years went by and that was pretty much what I had," Eberhardt said. "Mentally, I had problems with that."
But his body defied that early prognosis. Today, leg braces on his feet keep him flat-footed, but otherwise Eberhardt walks unassisted around the Dawsonville Highway restaurant he opened with his wife, Nancy, in 2006.
"Thank the Lord he allowed me to progress and improve," he said. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't thank God for what I've got."
Eberhardt, 57, talked about those early days and his life since, including his remarkable recovery, in an interview last week at Papa's Pizza-To-Go, which sits next to a convenience store that served as his parents' business from 1955 to 1982.
His life changed on Thanksgiving Day in 2000, when he fell 30 feet from a tree stand as he prepared to hunt deer in Hancock County in Middle Georgia.
Eberhardt landed on his back, his rifle pinned between him and the ground. The impact shattered a vertebra, with fragments cutting like shrapnel into his spinal cord.
At first, Eberhardt was unconscious.
"When I came to, I remember I was spitting up blood - it was like I was choking," he said. "Every time I tried to get the gun off my back and every time I'd move, I'd pass out."
The worst of his situation was that no one was near to provide immediate help. He had decided to get an "early jump" on his hunting buddies by showing up at the 2,000-acre leased property a day before they were to arrive.
"I wasn't even going to be missed until Friday night," said Eberhardt, who was working as a United Parcel Service driver at the time.
Lying on the ground, he also began to feel discomfort from the cold, as daytime temperatures were in the upper 20s.
"I started hollering for help," he said.
At some point, Eberhardt figured he was going to die.
"Every time I'd move, I'd black out. The pain was unbearable," he said. Hesitating a little, he added, "I thought if I could get this gun off my back, I could probably fix this situation."
Later that night, someone responded to his tired cries.
Help was on the way.
A handful of men, who had been hunting on adjacent property, found they couldn't move Eberhardt, so they called for extra help. Finally, about 40 emergency workers arrived at the scene and helped carry him 400 yards to a waiting helicopter, which flew him to Atlanta Medical Center.
Eberhardt would later meet one of the hunters and learn that he had heard faint cries for help earlier in the evening but initially dismissed them. After eating supper, he and his buddies went to the area where he thought he had heard the cries.
"For people who don't believe in miracles, that was a miracle," Eberhardt said. "I would have died (otherwise)."
"Sometimes you don't think (God's) listening, but I prayed a lot that night," he said. "I said, ‘I need some help, good Lord. I'm calling on you,' and he was there. It was something I'll never forget."
Eberhardt was in Atlanta Medical Center for three weeks, undergoing surgeries. He then went to the Shepherd Center for three months.
He recalled his wife staying with him every evening and going to work every day.
"That was hard on her and my family," Eberhardt said. "They had to sacrifice a lot for me, and I'm blessed to have a family like that."
Then, he spent the next 18 months in outpatient therapy.
He was confined to a wheelchair for more than two years, then moved on to full leg braces and crutches for another two years.
Bit by bit, he dropped all the appliances to get to the point where he is now.
He can walk well on level ground, "but as far as on the parking lot or in the yard, I have to use a cane," he said.
"I think I've gained back all I'm going to gain," Eberhardt said. "I just had a physical two weeks ago and the doctor said I was doing well."
He said he has severe back pain every day because of an 18-inch rod implanted in his back.
At his business he handles the finances and other low-key operations, leaving physical duties to others.
Otherwise, he functions pretty normally. He drives his pickup truck using hand controls and has returned to deer hunting, including this season, which ends Jan. 1.
"I don't go as much as I used to because of the business here," Eberhardt said. "I still enjoy the outdoors. We go fishing and hunting. I have to have help getting in and out of a boat, but I'm pretty self-sufficient otherwise."
He said he doesn't miss the tree stand.
"I see just as many deer sitting on the ground as I did in a tree."
Eberhardt, who has three daughters and one granddaughter, also spends time counting his blessings.
"You take stuff for granted. You get up and go to work and put your shoes on every day, you get in your car and you jump out to go fishing or hunting, whatever you do," he said.
"Then all of the sudden, you get that taken away and that's when it works on you up here," Eberhardt added, pointing to his head.
"I think I had just enough drive in me and prayers said for me that I progressed. I didn't give up."