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Spinal cord injury affects each person differently

September is Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month.

By Harvey Ross, Independent Living Services Coordinator

So I have been injured (spinal cord injury) for a while now and it always amazes me when people are shocked to find out what my disability is and how I obtained it! In my experience, it seems that the outside world believes that everyone who uses a wheelchair was born with their disability. I have had people ask me if I was born with my disability or ask if I have cerebral palsy.

I was injured at the C-2 level (C-2 is the second vertebrae under the skull) in such a way that doctors told me I should be dead—if not initially, then after nine or 10 years on a ventilator (a piece of medical equipment I did not end up needing). I have met a lot of people throughout my journey, some who are still here and others who are not.
Every SCI is different, even if they may be the same level of injury. My level of impact is at the C-2 vertebrae but I have a lot more function than would generally be expected of someone with the level of injury I sustained. I also feel everything internally, though not externally, which is weird but also a blessing.
I have two friends that I have met since my injury who have the same level of injury, but we all function differently. Two of us use wheelchairs primarily but one of us is actually up walking around.
There’s an old saying, “What you don’t use, you lose.” I used to be ashamed to wear shorts because my legs had gotten really skinny due to the lack of activity they used to get when I was up walking around. I have also lost some muscle mass in my arms due to the lack of movement I have in my hands. I guess I had taken muscle mass for granted but once you spend six months in the hospital with little to no movement you lose muscle mass. I was saddened at the way I looked because I have always been a very active person, playing sports and weight lifting. So you can imagine how I felt seeing myself for the first time. At present, I don’t see things that way due to being able to become active again and put on weight, but also because I have grown to be comfortable in my own skin.
A lot of people think obtaining a spinal cord injury is the worst thing that can ever happen but I beg to differ. I have had a pretty productive life considering and I know a lot of people who have obtained SCIs who are living very productive lives.
I can honestly say it’s like being born all over again: you have to learn to navigate through life all over with different obstacles on top of the ones that were there before. I personally believe that life is meant to test us—some more than others—but one thing I have learned is that pain should be embraced and not run from. There are so many life lessons to be gained when we do.
Whether you are born with a disability or acquire a disability at some point in your life, supporting and being supported by others with similar experiences can be extremely helpful. I run a support group for men with disabilities, and co-lead a group for high school students with disabilities. For more information about these groups, please contact me at 414-226-8127 V/Relay. We also offer many other support groups as well as one on one mentoring. For more information about the other peer support opportunities offered, please call 414-291-7520 V/Relay.