Man overcomes traumatic brain injury, graduates college

Smiling as he adjusts to his wheelchair

HAMBURG, NY (WIVB) – Shawn Spencer, from Buffalo, says he was on a bad path as a teenager. He was in a gang, did “illegal things” and dropped out of high school. What changed his life forever, was his need for speed.

He recently told a group of students at Hamburg High School, “I liked to drive fast. One day I was going 70 miles per hour near Hertel Avenue in Buffalo at 2 a.m. Do you know what the speed limit is on a city street?”

Spencer was going more than twice the speed limit, and hit a speed bump. That sent his car flying into a telephone pole. Doctors later told him if anyone had been sitting in his passenger seat, they would have died.

Shawn Spencer's badly damaged car
Shawn Spencer’s badly damaged car

Shawn himself was lucky to be alive. He was in a coma for months at Erie County Medical Center.

“They told me I was in a Stage 4 coma. The doctor explained to me that a Stage 30 coma is like sleeping at night. More than likely, you will wake up. A Stage 1, he said, is when the doctors are begging your family to take you off of life support. In his 30 years as a doctor, he told me he’d never seen anyone wake up from a Stage 4 coma,” he told the high school class.

Shawn did wake up, with a traumatic brain injury and paralysis on his right side.

After 97 days at ECMC, Spencer was placed at the Erie County Nursing Home.

Shawn Spencer at the Erie County Nursing Home
Shawn Spencer at the Erie County Nursing Home

He says, “I spent five years and 10 days at the home, but who’s counting?”

Spencer did not like being in the nursing home, but he couldn’t do anything for himself at the time. Eventually, he learned how to stand up on his own and take care of himself.

With the help of an organization called “Venture Forthe”, Shawn was able to live outside the nursing home on his own and he’s been on his own for the last 5 years.

Shawn, now 30, is sharing his story with the younger generation and showing them that you can still live with a traumatic brain injury.

He says, “I go around and tell them all not to speed, because hey, look at me, I am a perfect example.”

When Shawn speaks, it is slowly and deliberately, but intelligent and clear. He has had to work on his speech, and his mobility. He is able to joke about the benefits of his chair, saying “When I go to the amusement park, I get to go right to the front of the line.”

Shawn Spencer
Shawn Spencer

Shawn will graduate from college in May with a degree in Computer Networking, 12 years after his accident.

He says, “Now I need to get a job!”

Given the path he was on before his accident, Shawn never thought he would graduate from college. Now he’s doing just that, having overcome so much already in his life.

You can learn more about the Venture Forthe organization at provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Commenters who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review. Note: Comments containing links are not allowed.

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