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Ask the Doctor: Life with Spinal Cord Injury

By: Sam Ho, MD, Spinal Cord Injury Program Medical Director

Every two years, our Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Program sponsors a spinal cord injury symposium. Planning starts nearly immediately after the prior event as committee members meet to discuss potential topics, identify speakers, and zero in on a title that best represents the overall theme of the next symposium. As we spoke about this year’s conference,we kept coming back to the deeper questions we’re so often asked by our patients; important and thought-provoking questions beyond those initially asked post-injury. These questions are different from those related to physical ability and function, such as,“do you think I’ll walk?” or, “will I be able to go to the bathroom on my own?” They have more to do with moving forward, resuming or re-establishing one’s roles or life-long goals or developing new ones; finding meaning and purpose when life throws you a curve. Especially important, considering that life expectancies for people with spinal cord injuries continue to increase.

One of the tremendous advantages of our Spinal Cord Injury Program’s commitment to providing life-long care is that I’ve had the opportunity to see how many of you have moved forward and found success in achieving your goals and dreams. I only have to look around during the course of any given day at Mary Free Bed.

For example:

This year's SCI Symposium keynote speaker, Jocelyn Dettloff, is wheeling through our lobby. She’s just dropped off the Mary Free Bed banner that she borrowed for a fundraiser. She can’t chat for long, though, because she’s got wheelchair tennis practice tonight. Kelly Merz is talking with one of our spinal cord injury inpatients while his physical therapist helps him transfer onto a handcycle. Kelly, our SCI Program recreational therapist, is telling the patient about Mary Free Bed’s sponsorship of the wheelchair and handcycle divisions of the Fifth Third River Bank Run that she coordinates. “We pay entry fees for former Mary Free Bed inpatients and current outpatients,” says Kelly, “you have a whole year to get ready for next year’s race! I want to see you at the start!

Behind me on the wall is a piece of artwork purchased by the Mary Free Bed Guild that Breck Lonier entered in one of our annual art shows. Breck picked up wood burning as a way to keep himself occupied after he completed rehab, prior to returning to his job, and discovered artistic talent in the process. And he’s not the only one. Anthony Andrews recently brought in a beautiful painting of his wife, Mary, that he completed using mouthstick paintbrushes. He’s been taking art classes in addition to volunteering and public speaking.

Shelly Loose and Emily Blauw are meeting in another corner of the lobby, talking about the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant. Shelly Loose, Ms. Wheelchair 2007 and coordinator of next year’s national pageant in Grand Rapids, is reviewing details with Emily, Ms. Wheelchair Michigan 2010, who has a break between her patients. Emily is now working at Mary Free Bed as a speech therapist.

And...look who's here visiting from Arizona! Rich Hamill, a speaker at our 2004 SCI Symposium, stopped by to see me. He’s in Michigan for his first annual Michigan golf tournament and is the founder and president of the Will2Walk Foundation.

Each of these individuals needed to identify their own capabilities and potential and make a choice to move forward in setting goals and achieving their dreams. What gives your life meaning? What fills your life with purpose? How can you apply your gifts and talents? Our spinal cord injury team is here to help you and give you some ideas, whether it’s attending a support group meeting, volunteering, participating in an adaptive sports clinic or sporting event or cheering on those who do. Remember, we’re on your team and we’re here to help you along your journey.

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