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Crash victim puts life into focus

By Kathy Jefcoats

Four years ago, Stephen Shifflett was 16 and on his way back home following a trip to the dentist.

Literally in the blink of an eye n his own mother's n his life changed forever.

"A drunk driver in a semi hit my son right in front of me," said Marie Shifflett. "When they tested the driver's blood three hours after the crash, he still registered more than three times the legal limit."

The teenager had driven to the school where his mother taught so she could go with him to a dentist appointment and take care of insurance paperwork. He left his truck and rode with her. She brought him back to pick up his truck and he left to go home.

"I told him I'd be right behind him, that I would see him at home," she said.

Stephen pulled out onto Fairview Road and made it all the way across when his truck was hit. A series of coincidences began that Marie believes was more like divine intervention. Stephen's truck came to rest in a church parking lot across the street.

"People were getting out of Bible study so I was covered up with people able to call 911 and stay with me," she said. "The fire department just a mile up the road was having an EMT workshop and was overloaded with EMTs. They were there in seconds, it seemed like."

A medical helicopter was in the area on its way back to an Atlanta hospital from another call and was able to arrive within minutes. When it came to a landing pad, the church again provided the answer.

"The pastor said they could use the baseball diamond in back of the church," said Marie. "The members lifted the fence around it right out of the ground so the ambulance could drive onto the field to the helicopter."

Onboard the medical chopper was a nurse, the daughter of a family friend n providing comfort to a familiar face.

"When you talk about the golden hour, when victims need to get help," she said, "Stephen was at the hospital and getting treatment so fast. You want to say it was coincidence but its not. We've seen so many blessings from this, you just don't ask why."

Stephen, the only child of Marie and David Shifflett of McDonough, was not expected to live.

"Oh they told us that night he wouldn't make it," she said. "Then they told us weeks later he'd never be the same again. They told us he'd never have a sense of humor because of his brain injury. They were wrong about a lot of things."

That Stephen survived was a miracle, said Marie, and a testament to great faith.

"We'd just joined Eagle's Landing Baptist Church the January before this happened in April and they were just phenomenal," she said. "Someone was at the hospital with us the whole time."

Word of the accident spread throughout the community and the family was on prayer lists all over. The one-time Eagle Scout and honor student at Stockbridge High School began his slow recovery and learned to adjust to a 50 percent hearing loss and the loss of sight in his left eye, the result of his traumatic brain injury.

"He had to learn to walk and to talk all over again," said Marie. "He has some difficulty with his balance but he does pretty well. It was like watching my son grow up all over again in fast forward."

The injury affected his reading and writing skills but not his math abilities. When he was ready, he returned to Stockbridge High School, completed Algebra II and III and graduated with his class.

"He had wonderful teachers who worked hard to help him," his mother said.

With a special presidential exception, Stephen entered Clayton College and State University. He did well in math classes, not so well in classes that required reading and written expression. He performed exceptionally well in photography classes and with good reason.

"His grandfather gave him a camera when he was 5," said Marie. "Photography was an interest of his before the accident and it is something God has left with him. It is odd to think of a photographer with sight in only one eye, though."

So Stephen began honing his craft at the Showcase School of Photography in Atlanta, accompanied by his mother. She takes notes for him and they go on assignments together. Marie and David have learned to trust Stephen's artistic eye.

"I don't see what he sees," she said. "I have learned to let him go ahead and take the picture that I don't think will work. We even shoot together and mine don't turn out the same as his."

Stephen's primary subjects are what he finds around him in nature n the gardens at the Biltmore House in Asheville, a waterfall at Yellowstone, a dam in Henry County, butterflies in the backyard, a creek down the road.

"A lot of people are intrigued by my photos because they recognize the places," he said. "They know the area and say, ?I've been there.'"

While most of his art are literal captured snapshots, Stephen has developed a special effect he started using with flower shots and is now extending to other subjects.

"I saw an article about it in a garden magazine," said Marie. "They had used this special effect on photos of jewelry. I told Stephen he could do that with flowers."

Stephen wouldn't talk about the technique, preferring to keep the method his secret and therefore create an intrigue about the photos.

His work gets a lot of local exposure, with exhibits at the Arts Clayton gallery in Jonesboro, 19 pieces at Clayton College last month and five photos on display at the Barnes and Noble on Mt. Zion Boulevard. He is a member of the Henry County Visual Arts Collective and sets up booths at local festivals to sell his photos.

He also sells his work through his Web site, www.geocities.com/miraclemomentsphotography.