Shima Nixon Advancing the O&P Profession as First Black Female Clinician With Bilateral Limb Loss
On May 5, 31-year-old Taushima “Shima” Nixon achieved a dream ten years in the making when she graduated from Alabama State University with her Masters of Science in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As she walked across the stage on two prosthetic legs, Shima knew that accepting her diploma was not only a reflection of her hard work and perseverance, but a testimony to the unflagging support of her family, friends, colleagues, professors, and mentors—many of whom were in the audience—who encouraged and carried her after a traumatic accident changed her life and set the trajectory of her career.
Originally from the rural town of Williamston, North Carolina, Shima was studying nursing at Pitt Community College in March 2013, when her car died at a traffic light. The last memory Shima has is walking to the trunk to check the battery. When she woke up in the hospital three days later, she learned she had been hit by an on-coming car and lost one of her legs above-the-knee. Unfortunately, in July 2013, she would lose her other leg below-the-knee due to a staph infection.
Rather than studying for college finals, the 21-year-old was fighting for her life, re-learning how to walk, and leaning on her mother Patricia (who never left her side); her dad Sam; Mima Pat, her grandmother; her sister Kinah; brothers Shelton and Mark; niece Niya; her childhood best friend Rebecca; and countless other family members and friends. Hope came from her faith and community. Rebecca started a Facebook page called “Steps for Shima,” where hundreds of people shared messages of support.
Hope also came from Shima’s medical team, including her surgeon, Dr. Eddie Powell, Jr., the first Black doctor Shima was treated by, who helped her feel seen and understood.
This surgeon called in a special visitor for Shima, and when Community Care Coordinator Stephen Shope walked into her hospital room wearing two above-elbow prosthetic arms, she felt for the first time that she’d met someone who knew exactly what she was going through. Stephen was also young and had been in a traumatic motorcycle accident that caused him to lose both arms, but that hadn’t stopped him from activities like driving a stick shift and returning to riding a motorcycle.
Walking with Her Prostheses
With grit and determination, Shima underwent months of intense rehabilitation, being fit with her first prosthetic legs at Hanger Clinic in November 2013, meaningfully, around Thanksgiving. When she initially tried to stand, she realized she wasn’t sure what to do. Her prosthetist assured her, “Just put one foot in front of the other.” The journey to walking independently again was not easy, but with the mindset that God had saved her life for a reason, Shima made progress, moving from a wheelchair to waking with two canes, to one cane, to accidentally leaving her cane behind one day and realizing she didn’t need it anymore.
Shima was able to stand tall and confident again, eventually returning to school to finish her Associate’s Degree, where she met her best friend Aerial, and then graduating with a Bachelor’s of Science in Recreational Therapy from Georgia Southern University. In her personal life, Shima took up adaptive sports like wheelchair basketball and began to peer visit other amputees. At that point, she truly felt she was back to herself.
For several years, Shima worked a fulfilling job providing recreational therapy at a prison for men with mental health diagnoses. One day, she saw a man who had an amputation and found herself wondering if he was able to access the care he needed. Shima had an epiphany that her journey was not over, that recreational therapy was not the end: there was a final place she was meant to be.
Becoming a Prosthetist/Orthotist
In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Shima began applying to O&P master’s programs, the next step in becoming a certified prosthetist/orthotist. She was accepted to multiple schools, but chose Alabama State University, the only historically black college and university (HBCU) with an O&P program, because she knew her purpose included addressing the racial disparities present in healthcare at large and within O&P, where many patients of color do not have a clinician who looks like them.
Shima says, “I don’t mind standing in the gap, being the blueprint and showing other amputees, females, and especially African Americans as a whole, that those positions you don’t see yourself in are the main ones you should pursue. I know that once I become a prosthetist, my patients will be grateful to see that their clinician not only looks like them, but IS like them.”
Reconnecting with Friends
Shima received the inaugural Hanger Foundation Diversity Scholarship, which supported her studies at ASU and opened the door to a special reunion. When she inquired about whether Stephen Shope, whom she hadn’t spoken to in years, still worked at Hanger Clinic, she not only learned that he did, but she got his email address. Shima and Stephen reconnected virtually, and then in 2023, Shima was asked to share her story at Hanger LIVE, Hanger’s annual educational conference, where she reunited in person with Stephen for the first time in a decade. Stephen had never seen Shima walking or thriving and was incredibly proud of her.
As class president, Shima gave a speech to her O&P class on graduation day, during a White Coat ceremony attended by many of her family members and community, including her loving boyfriend Chris, who is also a certified prosthetist/orthotist. She reflected on the many challenges they had all worked through to reach this momentous day, reminding everyone: “We’re here. We made it.” As Shima shared with NBC Nightly News, “Everything that happened on my journey was worth it, and I’m glad it did happen, because it pushed me out of my comfort zone. I get to be part of something bigger than me.”
NBC Nightly News Spotlights Shima Nixon
NBC Nightly News airs a segment about Shima’s incredible story and graduation.
On June 5, Shima’s dream will come full circle as she starts her O&P residency with Hanger Clinic in Miami, where she’ll work closely with a diverse group of world-class prosthetists and orthotists to empower others in the limb loss and limb difference community. Shima is especially excited to serve a diverse group of patients, help show others that representation matters, and that they too can overcome hurdles and live the life they’ve always dreamed of.
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