Every year, approximately 17,000 people suffer a spinal cord injury. According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, the average length of stay in acute care for a person with a new injury is 11 days and the average stay in rehabilitation is only 35 days. Nobody enjoys staying in the hospital, but 35 days is not enough time to learn how to live with their injury. Coping with a new injury is a long and difficult process, of which the first year is the most challenging. While most things get easier with practice and time, problems will undoubtedly arise. Every person’s experience is unique, but hopefully I can use mine as an example of what or what not to do.
To briefly summarize my first year, I was injured in a car accident at the age of 16. I spent 3 months in the hospital and returned to school about a month later. I spent almost every waking hour either going to school, physical therapy, doctor appointments, or lawyers’ offices. After the end of the school year, I went to Craig Hospital for two months and returned home to start my senior year.
It was overwhelming. I was in survival mode and I don’t remember much of it.
Looking back, it is easy to say what would have helped me cope with my new injury. First and foremost, counseling would have been a big help. Nobody ever asked if I was depressed, and at the time I might have said no, although I obviously was. It took many years (and a wound flap surgery that I have discussed previously) before I did anything about it. Don’t do what I did!
If you are newly injured and reading this, you are already getting more peer support than I ever had. Being a kid when I was injured, I was limited to the pediatric unit of the hospital and never talked to or learned anything from another person with a spinal cord injury. Meeting other people with spinal cord injuries, whether in person or on the Internet, are the most valuable resource you can find. You can learn more in 10 minutes of talking with someone who has lived with an injury, than you can in three months in the hospital.
Going to physical therapy and doctor appointments is not really optional, but you don’t have to let it take over your life. Take time for yourself even if you don’t feel like you need it. For the first year, your job is to learn how to live with this new injury, but it is important to take time away from your job too.
Finally, when you are ready, try to get back to doing what you did before the injury. Going back to school or your job will be different from what it was, but it will provide a sense of normalcy when everything else is no longer normal. Get involved with your hobbies, even if they require adaptations. It might be different, but there is always a way to do something you enjoy.
When faced with a challenge like a spinal cord injury, it is important to take it one day at a time. Some days it might be necessary to take it minute by minute or hour by hour. It is extremely difficult to not focus on the loss and fear that accompany a new injury but concentrating on the present moment will help to alleviate such feelings. It will take time, and it may seem impossible, but the many challenges presented by a spinal cord injury are surmountable.
Written by Mike Franz
Mike is a C6 quad from Michigan who has been injured 16+ years.