At the time of his accident, Richard Bagby was 25 years old and strongly considering pursuing a career as a Marine Corps officer. At 6-6, 215 pounds, he was an oft-honored, highly recruited athlete in high school. He played basketball at Boston University before transferring to University of Richmond for football. He operated, as many young adults do, under the myth of indestructability. Then, in an instant, his life changed forever when he was paralyzed in a diving accident. Now a C5/6 quadriplegic, by necessity, he began to develop coping strategies he never could have imagined.
“I received immense emotional support from family and friends in a multitude of ways,” he said. “When I woke up the morning after the accident, I don’t know what it was, but something had switched in my mind that said, ‘Your life’s not over. It’s changed. It may look a little different, but you’re OK.’ I got into the athlete mindset of setting goals. You have two options. You either go with it, or you don’t. The latter was never acceptable.”
One year ago, he partnered with Sharon Drennan to create the United Spinal Association of Virginia. Drennan is executive director, Bagby serves as deputy director. The organization’s marquee program is structured peer and family mentoring. He has found meaning and fulfillment in his work. Using his life experience and the credibility and empathy its created, he counsels people with spinal cord injuries who are embarking upon the same path that he has traveled. “When I meet with newly injured people,” Bagby said, “My message is to look at your life in chapters. You’re starting a new chapter. You can’t dwell on the last chapter or expect the next chapter to be exactly the same as the last.”
Bagby has made a significant impact on so many across the state of Virginia. From mentoring the newly injured, educating families and friends, engaging youth volunteers in ramp builds, to collaborating with Life Rolls On about hosting a group of United Spinal members at their surfing event in VA Beach. He works tirelessly yet effortlessly to help individuals find new paths to independence, new sources of self-esteem, and become part of new social systems.
“One thing I’ve gained is a better perspective on what success is,” he said. “Most of society defines success in a monetary way, which is fine. I did too. I’ve come to learn that success is really how you affect other people’s lives in a positive way. It feels really good to be able to help people.”