As I put down the phone, I really felt for my new mentee Laura and what she was going through. When you have a spinal cord injury, people assume that it just means you can’t walk, but there’s so much more to it than that. That first time we spoke, Laura told me that she hadn’t had any specialist rehabilitation, any wheelchair training, or advice on how to use a catheter. She was lost.
And yet, I felt shockingly reminded of myself while I was talking to her. I too was a young mother when I was involved in a car crash in 1990 that left me permanently paralysed from the waist down. I was suddenly trying to adapt to a whole new way of life while still being a mum. How was I going to do the school run? How would my boys cope? These thoughts were circling around Laura’s head and mine too at the time.
Luckily, I had the chance to attend a residential activity course run by the spinal injury charity, Back Up. I went down to Exmoor where I tried abseiling, canoeing and all sorts of amazing things. After that, everyday challenges that had seemed impossible, suddenly seemed much more achievable. I could do the Tesco shop. I could go out and see friends. I could be me. And so could Laura. She just needed a bit of guidance and support.
That’s where Back Up’s mentoring service comes in. In 2011, I trained as a volunteer mentor so I could pass on my experience to other people in a similar situation. The training shows you how to use your personal experience to help others adjust to life with a spinal cord injury. People rely a lot on their family and friends, but actually talking to someone who’s been where they have really helps. Since then, I’ve mentored over 20 people including Laura.
As part of the process, I spoke to her every couple of weeks. I remember one call quite vividly because it was her first time back at her daughter’s school. That was a tough day. When she got home, she said she just sat there in her wheelchair and stared at her legs – desperately willing them to move. This really broke my heart because I remembered doing the exact same thing, only I knew it would pass. I told her that she would feel more independent in time. She says that she hopes that she will too, she just can’t see it yet.
One of the key ways to rebuild that independence is learning how to deal with the daily practicalities of a spinal cord injury. Knowing how to use a wheelchair properly, for example, can make such a difference to your quality of life. I told Laura about a session that Back Up runs at spinal units in the UK called Wheelchair Skills Extra which gives you the tools and confidence to get around in your wheelchair. Once she has those skills, she’ll see that she can have a spinal cord injury and still live the life she wants.
My last call with Laura ended on a much more positive note. The skills session has helped her get out more in her wheelchair and enjoy herself again. She’s also managed to move back into her old bedroom too, and she told me how that morning her husband woke up the kids and they all got in bed together. Laura said she even feels like a mum again.
Since our mentoring relationship finished, she has been on a Back Up course, taken up wheelchair tennis and her confidence has grown incredibly. I’m sure she’ll be an amazing mentor herself one day. I’m very happy for her.
By Julie Hill
Volunteer, skills trainer, mentor.