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So You Know Someone Who Suffered a Spinal Cord Injury: Now What?

Let’s be honest, with any luck, this isn’t something that many of us will have to deal with in our lifetime- whether it be suffering a spinal cord injury, or knowing someone who has. Then again, around 17,500 new spinal cord injuries happen each year in the United States and unfortunately, I know that path all too well. 

Our Story

In the early summer of 2016, my husband, Derek, left our home around 6am to start his usual work commute. We’d been married for two years, living a seemingly normal life. Instead of receiving the usual “I’m safe” text that would always roll in around 6:40am, I instead received  a call from a man named David. “Get to the Eskenazi hospital (in Indianapolis, IN) as soon as possible. Your husband has been in a serious accident.” 

Although the accident is still a mystery, that morning changed both of our lives forever. Just an hour after arriving to the Emergency Room, David ushered me into a tiny closet-like waiting area and told me the doctor would be right in. It was in that moment I learned that my athletic, handy husband had crushed the T4 vertebrae of his spine. I sat alone as the rest of our families drove in from different cities, absorbing the shocking news I’d been given. I learned that, at that level, not only would Derek not be able to walk again, he would have no feeling or function from the armpits down. 

We’ve learned a lot since that day three years ago. In the time since Derek’s injury, we abandoned our “dream home” that Derek had remodeled by hand from an old garage, and purchased a home that we could remodel to be wheelchair accessible. In that same time, Derek relearned how to drive and started back to work. We also got a dog that is nowhere near the “Service Dog” training level, but we like to joke that he is. More than anything, we’ve become way more aware of the handicap community. 

3 Myths I Want You to Know About Spinal Cord Injury

Myth #1: The Biggest Goal is Walking Again

Perhaps you’ve seen that cheesy Facebook video of a paralyzed rat getting some type of amazing shot that repairs its spinal cord and Voila! It is now running around that maze as if nothing ever happened. By nature, we assume the #1 goal of a paralyzed person is to walk again.  

For us, it isn’t about walking again; rather, it’s that dang bowel and bladder! When you are paralyzed, you lose function from where your injury level is and down. That means your bowel and bladder don’t work. Making sure those two things don’t cause an embarrassing scene for you at your next work lunch-in, you will spend around 2 hours each morning getting yourself ready for the day. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always do the trick. If you start getting a UTI or perhaps a touch of the stomach bug, you best just stay home. Many folks we’ve talked with agree. Walking again is great but having your body function like a more normal adult would be a top priority. 

When facing a spinal cord injury, effects differ based on where the injury occurred. In Derek’s case, T4, effecting him from the armpits down. Credit: The Next Step Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Centre

Myth #2: You’ll Never See the Inside of a Gym Again

Not only can spinal cord injury patients work out, but it’s incredibly important that they do so.  Sitting all day in a wheelchair can cause weight gain, issues with heart rate, blood flow, and pressure sores.

But there is a catch. As a paraplegic, you need your shoulders. Those shoulders push you around all day, they help you transfer onto your bed, your couch, or your adapted vehicle. If you injure your arms or shoulder, you’ve just lost a majority of your independence.  Derek recently started working with a trainer who is helping him get in a great workout, but still protecting the integrity of his shoulders and arms.

As you can imagine, yoga can be a great way to strengthen your body without risking your shoulder’s integrity. Here are a few yoga poses to try that can help you to find space in your upper body and shoulders:

Cow Pose

This pose opens the front of the body- in particular, the chest and shoulders.

  • Begin by placing your hands on your chair or thighs.
  • Gently tilt the chin up, expanding through the front of the chest on a long, even inhale.
  • Continue with 3-5 deep breaths as you hold this pose.

Cat Pose

This pose can stretch the spine and neck through the back of the body.

  • Begin with hands placed on the wheelchair or thighs.
  • On an exhale, tuck the chin into the chest, lengthening the spine and rounding through the upper back and shoulders.
  • Stay in this pose for 3-5 deep breaths and slowly return the head to neutral.

Bonus: If it feels good, and works in your body, you can move between cat and cow pose with your breath. On an inhale, tilt the chin up as you move into cow pose. On an exhale, tuck the chin as you move into cat pose. This will help to open both sides of the body and add extra flexibility across the chest and back.

Eagle Pose

This is a great pose to increase flexibility in the shoulders and upper back. If there isn’t currently enough range of motion to get the arms into this position, “hugging yourself” has the same benefit.

  • Stretch your arms straight forward, parallel to the floor. Cross the arms in front of your torso so that the right arm is above the left, then bend your elbows. Snug the right elbow into the crook of the left, and raise the forearms perpendicular to the floor. The backs of your hands should be facing each other.
  • Inhale to lift the arms, stretching the scapulas away from one another and broadening the upper back.
  • Exhale and tuck the chin, rounding the upper back if possible and drawing the elbows into the body.

Benefits of Wheelchair Yoga

  • Improved strength
  • Increased flexibility
  • Increased lung capacity
  • Improved restful sleep
  • Less feeling of isolation
  • Increased feelings of connection
  • Less feelings of stress, anxiety and tension
  • Improved focus
  • Improved clarity
  • Overall improved sense of well being

Myth #3: A Spinal Cord Injury Effects You From the Waist Down

I remember sending out a “please pray” text to our community the night of the accident. I said “Derek is paralyzed from the waist down”. Whoops. I had NO idea the different levels of paralysis and how that greatly changes your life.

Basically, wherever you injure your back or neck is where you lose function. So, if you dove into shallow water, you most likely injured the “C” level of your spine (your neck) and would be considered a quadriplegic. Depending on how high your neck injury, you may have some hand/ arm function or you may fully depend on others. For paraplegics, you injured your T or L area of your back. Derek is a high T, which means he does have hand/ arm function but no core or abs. 

My how far we’ve come since Derek’s injury!

Aren’t our bodies amazing? The spinal cord truly works like a puppeteer, allowing your body to move and sway with life. The next time you are in your favorite yoga pose, take a deep breathe and thank that spine of yours. It’s a miracle in and of itself.  

Follow the Lavender’s journey on Instagram and Facebook at @lavenderslongshot.


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