Spinal cord injury support group helps patients and families cope

Kerri and Austin Clark (seated in front at right), joined by Baptist Health Rehabilitation clinical manager Tony Bohannon, listen Thursday as physical therapist assistant Jansen Barrett introduces guest speaker Krissie Robinson at the October meeting of the West Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Support Group. The support group was started last May and is the only one of its kind in Kentucky west of Louisville.

DAVID B. SNOW | The Sun

For people with spinal cord injuries, there is more to recovery than just physical healing. Spinal cord injuries often require special needs, and their caretakers need information about resources and how to transition through the phases of recovery. Patients and their families also need to be around others who are going through similar circumstances to share problems and ideas.

Baptist Health Paducah started its West Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Support Group last May, the only such support group in Kentucky west of Louisville and the only Kentucky support group listed on spinalcord.com. Other support groups in area states listed on the website are in Chicago, Chattanooga and St. Louis, making this support group the most accessible for people in western Kentucky, southern Illinois and western Tennessee.

Occupational therapist Tiffany Roberts and physical therapist assistant Jansen Barrett, who coordinate the monthly meetings, gathered information for starting the support group last year.

"The goal was to build a community," Roberts said. "We know the book smarts, but we don't live it. We can tell them all about the anatomy and the rehab, but (we wanted) to build that community of other people who are in the same position and they're living the same thing - not only them, but their spouses and family members. There wasn't any (support group) in this area that we knew of that gave that (sense of community)."

Austin Clark, 32, of Graves County fell from a tree while bear hunting in Canada in May 2018. He forgot to wear a harness and only fell 10 feet, but he landed hard on his feet, shattering his L-1 vertebra, the uppermost of the lumbar vertebrae in the lower back. He was brought from Canada to the Frazier Rehab Institute in Louisville, then brought to Baptist Health Rehabilitation in Paducah in July 2018.

When Roberts and Barrett started the support group, Clark was one of the first people they asked to take part.

"I've been here since the beginning. It's been great," he said. "Everybody feeds off of everybody else, and we talk and get support and comfort. If you've got a question, somebody who has gone through it longer can answer it.

"It's nice to be able to talk with somebody who is going through it, too. Going through this is more mental on everyone than anything else. For anybody who comes, it's rewarding."

Clark's wife, Kerri, has found support as well with other wives of patients.

"One couple that we've gotten really close to has been going through this for 20-something years," she said. "So, I have talked with (the wife) and learned a lot on how to not only care for him at home but in our marriage - how to keep our marriage on track and how to deal with everything. "We've got two small children at home who are going through this, so it's real nice to be able to come."

Guest speakers at each meeting provide information on a number of topics pertinent to those rehabilitating from spinal cord injuries. At the most recent meeting on Thursday, about 20 people - including patients, family and friends - attended to hear Baptist Health physical therapist Krissie Robinson, the guest speaker for that meeting.

November's meeting will feature a speaker from Superior Van, which provides specialized vans for people with spinal cord injuries, and in December, members will hear about self-defense training for people with disabilities.

"We try to lead with something educational or something in the community - like, last month (the discussion) was vocational rehab, which several people are trying to get back to work," Roberts said. "We had people stay after and ask questions."

Asked how people can join the support group, Roberts and Barrett both said, "Show up."

"Some people who come here, we do see them professionally at this clinic, but others, we have just met through this support group," Roberts said.

"I would say the majority of people that come are within their first year or so (of being injured), but we do have people that come 20 years out. This group is built for anybody."

People can even take part in meetings from home using Zoom, a video communications app used in video conferencing.

The support group meets from 5 to 6 p.m. on the first Thursday of the month at the Baptist Health Rehabilitation building at 115 Kiana Court. For more information, call 270-534-1200.

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