Don Whitehead

Don Whitehead

Enabling the Disabled: Don Whitehead

REP.’s 33rd Annual Advisors with Heart Awards

Firm: Morgan Stanley

City: Houston, Texas

Age: 41

Years as an advisor: 14

Years with current firm: 14

AUM: $300 million


Don Whitehead was in a devastating motorcycle accident when he was 23 years old. He took a 40-foot drop off of an elevated freeway in the crash, and the impact on hitting the ground caused his aorta to separate from his heart. Amazingly, doctors were able to save Whitehead’s life. But the lack of blood flow to his spinal cord in the immediate aftermath of the crash left him paralyzed from the waist down.

“The percentages of survival with my types of injuries are too small to count,” Whitehead says. “You’re supposed to go through some traumatic depression and denial with paralysis, but I never really did. I knew my life wasn’t over at that point.” 

Still, he knows how difficult it is for people with spinal injuries to adjust to their new lives, which is why he volunteers through TIRR Memorial Hermann, a Houston hospital that specializes in rehabilitation. Whitehead reaches out to patients who are getting ready to go home after their hospital stays, and keeps in touch as a coach for as long as they like. “There are people I’ve worked with now for five to six years or longer,” he says.

A significant step for these former patients is becoming comfortable going out again, and overcoming their apprehension of public stigma, he says. “We help them get over that by example,” Whitehead says. “We do dinners and outings that show them they can go out there in public and go to a restaurant.”

Getting persons with new spinal injuries moving and playing sports again is another big focus for Whitehead. “If they were athletes and very active before, the big challenge is what their lives are going to be like next,” he says. Whitehead and other volunteers help former patients learn to ride hand cycles, and organize group rides where hand cyclists and able-bodied cyclists ride together. He and other volunteers have also organized groups to compete in long-distance cycling races, golf tournaments and fishing tournaments.

More generally, Whitehead helps his mentees to adjust and cope with the myriad challenges that they meet on reentering normal life. That can mean everything from learning to drive a car again, to navigating marital tensions or getting back into their careers. “Some people come out of the hospital and think they’ll never work again, but they can actually become everything they thought they could become when they were kids,” he says.  “I know great attorneys here who are disabled, great doctors and great financial advisors.”

TAGS: People
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