When You Need a Mentor

After 27 years with a spinal cord injury, many people have taught me the “tricks of the trade” about transfers, bladder and bowel care, dressing, the importance of sports and staying active, among other things. I now enjoy walking (or rolling) with others on this journey as a peer mentor as they learn to live life after a spinal cord injury.

But I’m getting wiser. (Translate: I’m getting older.) In the past few years I have had the desire to talk with wheelers who have successfully pushed through their 40s and 50s and 60s after decades of living with a spinal cord injury. I need a peer mentor. Again.

I was fortunate when a trusted friend (who uses a chair) said, “You need to meet Mark.” My friend connected us via Facebook and Mark and I now stay in touch, even by phone. Mark has been a great source of information for how he has lived 46 years as a quad. He was injured at 19 and is now 65 years old. He worked as a social worker full-time, then went to part-time, and when he was 56 he retired due to losing a kidney because of chronic infections. We both struggle with skin breakdown that we keep a close eye on. As he is transitioning to a power chair, I have been able to walk him through the process of choosing a power chair and getting a van. It’s been mutually beneficial relationship.

When Paul told me, “You need to meet Duanne,” the three of us set up dinner out at Claudia Sanders’ Restaurant (yes, the Colonel’s wife). When I met Duanne, I could tell immediately I was going to like her. At 66, she is a vibrant, social butterfly who is still in great health and is very active in her community. In 1967 she was injured at age 16 and became a C6-7 quad. Duanne worked full-time for a community newspaper as a writer and editor for 27 years, 15 years as public relations coordinator for local school system and the past three years as chief writer for local magazine (although she’s technically retired!).

After my dinner with Duanne, I began thinking of all the questions I have and that she might be able to answer some of them. I called her up and asked if she would like to get together again. After chit-chatting and ordering our food, I said: “Now I’d like to interrogate you.” Well, it was true! I needed to ask about aging as a single female with a spinal cord injury. Work. Retirement. Health-related questions like bone density, menopause and changes in independence. Finances. Duanne graciously answered my questions with openness and honesty – and humor.

I think we all need someone who can give us wisdom. Someone who has “been there, done that.” I am so thankful that I have Mark and Duanne who are role models to me. In reality, they are the first generation of spinal cord injuries to have a statistically near-normal life expectancy. And they are both living lives worthy of emulating.

When you need a mentor, whether immediately after an injury or as an experienced wheeler, what characteristics do you look for? Where do you look?

Here are some ideas:

  • If you have a good rehab facility in town, contact them and request to talk with the person in charge of peer mentors. They should be able to connect you with someone with a similar injury and/or life stage as you.
  • If you don’t have a rehab facility nearby, you can contact the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation to be connected with a peer mentor in your area.
  • If someone you know says, “You need to meet…,” trust them and take them up on it.
In my opinion, a good peer mentor will be honest and vulnerable, willing to share the successes and hardships of life with a disability. We can learn from both.

To be connected with a peer mentor in your area, go to https://www.christopherreeve.org/get-support/get-a-peer-mentor

Jenny

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