The Importance of Peers to the Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Process


The journey through the spinal cord injury recovery process can feel like an everlasting, emotional rollercoaster which people without spinal cord injuries cannot even begin to imagine. Guidance from experts can help, but sometimes the best help comes from those who have lived, survived, and continue to thrive in life after experiencing a SCI.

In both physical and emotional aspects, the process is challenging, and it is not uncommon for patients to feel alone in their recovery. This is where peers can provide a life-changing influence.

Who are your SCI peers?

A peer, in this respect, is somebody who has personal experiences of spinal cord injury, and acts as a friend and a coach to another who is facing their own recovery process. Spinal cord injuries can cause so much upheaval and dramatic change in a person’s life, that it can be difficult for anyone else to really relate or be able to empathize with what they are experiencing.

Not all coaches need to be counsellors- some are just people in your community who share the same experiences. However, some of these people choose to become peers who may be employed at your hospital or rehabilitation facility, who can offer a more therapeutic approach.

How can a peer help?

Put simply, a peer promotes a better quality of life for SCI patients. The Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO) defines quality of life as "the standard of health, comfort, and happiness experienced by an individual or group.” Despite having a spinal cord injury, there are other elements of life to concentrate on other than physical abilities, and it is these elements-comfort, health and happiness- that a peer can support with.

Of course, there are many layers to this ultimate goal of what a peer does. Helping patients come to terms with their injury, and see a life for themselves afterwards, can be an extremely difficult task. But it is undoubtedly highly rewarding. Peers also encourage survivors to face challenges head on and solve them, to achieve their goals, and to exceed ‘limits.’

Many peers have chosen to follow the counselling path because they have ‘been there, done that’ and are fully familiar with the emotion and experiences of a SCI and the recovery process. Being able to empathize and recall their feelings about the same things can be a truly healing experience for those they are supporting; symbolizing hope and life after SCI.

What type of person becomes a SCI peer?

Elizabeth Woudsma is a counsellor from Ontario and following her injury, found happiness in this challenging but truly rewarding role. After returning to work, she found the joy of teaching had disappeared following her injury, and that she needed to find something new to do.

Her job is to attend to the emotional needs of a person throughout their SCI recovery process, while she works closely with others on her team who can support and provide the patient with more physical-based support.

Elizabeth enforces the belief in those she is peer to that they have not changed as a person. Disability cannot change your purpose in life, even if it has changed your physical capabilities. One of the most difficult parts of her jobs is seeing people at the very beginning of their recovery journey, when some are experiencing some of the worst and lowest days of their lives.

She fosters a sense of hope and encourages them in their most discouraged moments.

Of course, having experienced a SCI herself, Elizabeth knows full well the extent of emotions and feelings that can be felt. Her job requires her to reflect back on her own injuries and disability in order to connect with those she is supporting, which can be emotionally tough for her. But she believes with the right strategy, both herself and the patient can work to continually connect with each other and draw out positives of the situation.

Peers Offer Hope

Peers can be the beacon of hope, encouragement and life after injury for a lot of people. Being able to relate to somebody and their injury can be highly therapeutic, and offer a sense of ‘I know how you feel… It gets better’.

Without this kind of hope, the spinal cord injury recovery process can be harder than it needs to be. If you think you could offer support as a peer, you can be sure it will probably be one of the most rewarding things you can do.

One way to connect with peers is to attend live events like Push Nation Fest - happening in Florida this April. Click below for details.

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Topics: Spinal Cord Injury

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