Category Archives: Feature stories

5 Tips for Returning to Work with an SCI

Austin Patten back at work. He was injured in August 2019, a few months 
after getting married.

By Austin Patten

While in the hospital recovering from my injuries, I could not even focus on reading a few sentences in a book, so my mind became more like mush than anything else. I started working again just 3 months after my SCI. I work as an analyst, so my mind is critical to my job.

When I did return to my job, it was very hard, but awesome at the same time. I came back to work so I could provide for my family as well as keep myself from falling into a deep depression. The first time I rolled into the office I just talked with my coworkers. We talked about my story and how it has affected me. Then I spoke with my boss about beginning work again. There are a few things I would recommend to people who are returning to work after SCI.

1 . Ask for Help

People are willing to help, and they want to help. Coworkers took on my tasks while I was gone and were happy to keep helping as I worked to sharpen my mind and get back in the game. I remember when I had to ask for help for the first time. I had a deadline approaching and knew I couldn’t hit it. I remember crying when I asked for help because this was something I was proud of doing, but the team rallied and helped me complete the task on time. As I work more and more, I need to ask for help less often.

2 . Take Time to Cry

For a long time, every time I would go use the bathroom, I would also just spend a few minutes crying. What we go through with SCI is not easy. None of our friends and family get it. Cry about it whenever you can. The future is different and I often long for my prior life. Anything can be a trigger. Take that time in the bathroom to cry or close the office door and let it out. Holding it in doesn’t help.

3. Find a Support Crew at Work

Once, when I came out of the bathroom after crying, a coworker noticed I had been crying and approached me about it. It felt good to talk to him. People want to see you be human. By being vulnerable and talking about things with those you trust, you can enhance your mental health. All it took for me was a friend at work who was willing to talk and help me problem-solve. Now when I have an issue at work, I know there are people I can go talk to and cry in front of while we work through the problem.

4. Take it Easy

It is easy to want to jump right in and go. But working after your injury gets overwhelming very fast. You might not be able to work full-time right away. Maybe you can start working only a couple days a week for part days, like I did. Your 100% might look different than it did before. Talk to your boss about workload management at the office. Most bosses just want you to get better, so take the time you need to ease back into the office—but do it quickly, as your company needs your help.

5. Have Fun

If you can’t find a task to do at work, then make your task to have fun. Turn an excel spreadsheet into a game or find a way to compete with someone at a task. You may be slower, but you can blame the injury and make them feel guilty. Okay don’t do that, but the important thing is to find the fun in life again. Talk about things you love and work on important tasks in a fun way. Find something to laugh at. I started to have “roll up music” when I come into the office. Before I rolled in, I would select a song and play it loud on my phone to “make an entrance”. Everyone laughs and loves it. It starts the day on a good note.

I am still trying to make my mind sharp again. I understand it’s a process and might take a while. Until then, I will keep taking the small steps to be better. One day, I will roll into the office like it’s any other day and when I do, I’ll know I’m back.

– Follow Austin on his journey post-injury @
https://www.instagram.com/latterdaytriathlete/

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The Struggles of a Walking Paraplegic

My disability isn’t very visible. I was paralyzed from the waist down in 2009 after sustaining an incomplete S-5 spinal cord injury during a soccer game. After using a wheelchair for a little while, I was able to regain enough sensation and movement to learn how to walk again. Now, I use a leg brace and walk with a slight limp, and I can’t walk further than 20 yards without getting tired. I also can’t stand for longer than a few minutes at a time because of my pain and weakness. And of course, I have some of the classic SCI symptoms: lack of bladder control, inability to regulate temperature below the site of injury, etc.

So, yes, I am disabled! I have a disability that affects me every day, as do all people with spinal cord injuries. Yet, whenever I refer to myself as “disabled” or as “a person with a disability,” I feel a twinge of guilt. Identifying as disabled out loud makes me feel guilty, as if I don’t have the right to claim that title.

I’m not exactly sure why I feel guilty for identifying as a part of the disabled community—specifically, the spinal cord injury community. Maybe it’s because I don’t “look the part” of having a spinal cord injury, as if there is only one way to look and be disabled. Maybe it’s because of the stigmatization of “invisible disabilities”, where invisible conditions are seen as less inhibiting and less real. Maybe it’s because of all the times I’ve been apprehended by strangers in public after legally parking my car in an accessible parking spot (and trust me, this is a common occurrence.)

Or maybe it’s because I know that I have more mobility and more sensation than a lot of people in my same position. Maybe it’s because I feel like I got lucky when I made my physical recovery. Maybe it’s because I’m constantly wondering why I’m able to walk and move and feel, when so many others never will.

Maybe because I’m less disabled than some, I don’t feel deserving of the title at all.

But disability isn’t static—neither are spinal cord injuries. SCIs aren’t a “one-size-fits-all” identity marker that looks the same for everyone. I shouldn’t expect myself to look any sort of way to validate my identity, nor should anyone else. Disability also isn’t a competition. What good comes out of comparing disabilities? Everyone is “less disabled” or “more disabled” than someone out there. Ultimately, comparing my disability to others is an unhealthy habit, and all it does is make me feel bad about my own struggles. 

I have a ways to go before this disability guilt completely leaves my mind. And of course, I must recognize that I do hold “passing privilege” (meaning I can sometimes pass as able-bodied in certain settings) that benefits me at times. I don’t have to deal with as many stares or instances of discrimination as people who use wheelchairs. I acknowledge that I do have privilege due to my physical recovery. But, I also need to recognize that I don’t have to look a certain way to be considered disabled. And I don’t need to be any “more” or “less” disabled to be considered as someone with a spinal cord injury. Neither does anyone else.

No one with a disability needs to feel guilty about calling themselves disabled. If you have a disability/SCI, no matter what kind, no matter the severity, and no matter what you look like: you are valid, and you have a place in the disability community. 

Hopefully, someday, my guilt will go away. And in the meantime, I’ll continue to call myself what I am: disabled.

This post was written by Mackenzie Saunders, Spinal Cord Injury Law Firm Paralegal and SPINALpedia Director of Operations. Mackenzie is currently finishing her degrees in Political Economy and Justice Studies at Arizona State University, and will attend Harvard Law School in Fall 2022. Mackenzie loves dogs, public speaking, and spending time with her sisters.