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Mass. patients with spinal cord injuries find help

November 10, 2013

A spinal cord injury can impact every area of life, including the physical and emotional aspects, relationships, financial matters, employment and modifications to the individual’s home environment.

“It is a life-altering event,” said Sharon M. Abdalla, a social worker at Weldon Rehabilitation Hospital, and facilitator for the spinal cord injury support group there.

“It can be easy to slip into depression and despair. Feelings of isolation and disconnect from the world are common. Learning to re-acclimate in an able-bodied world from a wheelchair can be very challenging and frustrating and can limit one’s options in the community.”

The group meets on the last Tuesday of the month at Mercy Medical Center, 299 Carew St., from 6 to 8 p.m.

The group is for individuals with either traumatic spinal cord injury, from an accident, for example, or an acquired injury or illness — a tumor or spina bifida, for example.

“Most of the individuals that attend are in wheelchairs, and are considered ‘paraplegic’ or ‘quadriplegic,’” Abdalla said, though some members are able to walk.

The group members provide mutual aid and support to one another “in a way that one-on-one counseling is unable to do as, members truly do understand the challenges faced by individuals living with spinal cord injury,” Abdalla added.

An average of about 15 people attend the free meetings that usually include a speaker on a related topic, refreshments and time for discussion.

Michael F. Collier, of Westfield, suffered a stroke in 2011, and has been attending the support group for about six months. Paralyzed on his left side, he said the stroke took away his job as a lithographer, and his independence.

“They really help you out. It’s good,” Collier said of the meetings. “You can relate to people and listen to everybody else’s stories.”

Christine L. Machos, of Chicopee, sustained spinal cord injury in a motor vehicle crash in 2003; she has been attending the support group for 10 years.

“I have come to know many wonderfully brave people through this support group,” she said. “I get and hopefully give a lot to/from the people I have met in this group.”

Among the benefits of participation, she noted support, empathy, camaraderie, problem solving, tips and ideas, information and peer mentoring.

“People with spinal cord injury would like to live in a world that is more accessible,” Abdalla said, noting that many dental offices cannot accommodate wheelchairs, and many people with spinal cord injuries can’t transfer onto surfaces in doctors’ offices and medical procedural areas for testing.

“Individuals with (spinal cord injuries) would like people to look beyond the ‘wheelchair’ and see them for who they are — a lawyer, former gymnast, nurse, etc. People with spinal cord injuries would like the same opportunities able people have.”

“The biggest advantage is helping people realize that they’re not alone, that others share their same struggles and feelings,” said Abdalla of what the support group offers. “That realization alone is helpful.”

She added participants in the group learn skills to relate to others that can carry over into their relationships at home.

The group also informs participants of the newest advancements in treatment and technology to improve quality of life for people with spinal cord injuries.

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