“When you get paralyzed, you have two choices: you can either stay where you are at and feel sorry for yourself, and let it limit you, or you can look at it in a positive way, as a new opportunity and a ‘new normal,’ and that is what it has done for me.” — Erika Bogan, Ms. Wheelchair America 2010 and social media analyst for Mobility Ventures
Life is made of up a series of choices. Some of them are simple: What do I want to wear today? Some are a bit more complex: What do I want to do with my life? And sometimes, we’re dealt a hand that turns even the simplest choices into immense challenges: How am I going to go to the store and prepare dinner for my family without the use of my limbs?
Through my work with Outrider USA, I met two incredible women, Shannon Chisholm and Erika Bogan, who graciously enlightened me on what life’s like after being paralyzed.
Chisholm, a physical therapy assistant, mother of two boys, cycle enthusiast, and competitive bodybuilder, was riding her bike to work July 2011 when a motorist rear-ended her. Chisholm suffered a T10 spinal cord injury that left her paralyzed from the waist down.
Bogan, a single mother of three girls and a social media analyst for Mobility Ventures, was injured in a January 2002 car accident as a result of domestic violence. She sustained an incomplete break between her T11 and T12 vertebrae.
Since their injuries, both women have become leaders and passionate advocates for the disabled.
After a traumatic injury, patients undergo a physical, emotional, and spiritual process associated with recovery: finding their “new normal.” The process means more than simply re-learning basic skills and acclimating to the daily routine of life, say both women. Finding a new normal means becoming comfortable and confident with who you are post-injury. “That is the biggest challenge,” says Bogan. “Finding your ‘new normal,’ accepting it, and becoming comfortable in your own skin.”
The path begins with rehabilitation, typically done in a hospital setting or in a specialized rehabilitation center. During rehab, patients focus on strengthening the muscles that work and learning how to do dress, shower and transfer in and out of a wheelchair. While these are essential skills to acquire post-injury, they don’t necessarily get to the heart of the problem: emotional and mental rehabilitation.
“It made it very hard for me when I got out to find my ‘new normal’ because I literally had to do it all on my own,” says Bogan. Rehab “didn’t emotionally prepare me for the world that was outside of that rehab center. I think that was the hardest part.”
While the lack of a well-rounded rehabilitation is not an uncommon experience among spinal cord injury patients, there have been vast improvements in the standard of care over the years, as Chisholm’s rehab demonstrates. Chisholm, injured 14 years after Bogan, received a scholarship to one of the nation’s most prestigious rehab centers. During her three months in the program, Chisholm and her family were housed in a private apartment owned by the center. This setup provided her with consistent in-depth care and allowed her family to be part of the healing process.
She adds that many patients were hesitant to go on trips outside of the center for fear of public reaction. During her rehab, Chisholm says, “They actually encouraged us to get out.”
Bogan says that’s “a huge thing to get past for some people, [who say], ‘I don’t want to be treated any different, I don’t want to be looked at any different.’ Well, unfortunately, at the end of the day, you are different, but it’s OK.”
“Embrace it!” says Chisholm. Being out in the world and accepting who you are, regardless of what other people think, is a monumental step in the recovery process, she says.
A shared experience that aided both women in their journeys of self-rediscovery was their participation in the nonprofit Ms. Wheelchair America Pageant. Bogan was named Ms. Wheelchair NC in 2009 and crowned Ms. Wheelchair America a year later. Chisholm, a Fletcher local, became Ms. Wheelchair NC in 2015.
The event isn’t a talent or beauty competition, say Bogan and Chisholm. It is, instead, a platform on which to celebrate and recognize a community of strong, inspirational women who exemplify the ABILITY in disability. “Sometimes it just takes someone else who is in a chair and who has been in a chair for a while to be like, ‘You know, it’s OK,” says Bogan. “Every day is going to get easier and it’s going to get better and you’re going to find that ‘new normal’ and that groove that works for you.”
Ms. Wheelchair participants form an everlasting bond of sisterhood and mentorship that is not always facilitated in a traditional rehab setting. “When I first met Shannon over a year ago,” says Bogan, “she was still trying to find her ‘new normal’ and wasn’t as apt to go out of her box. But now, I see her conquering new challenges and taking things as they come. … Being able to see her grow and blossom has reaffirmed to me how amazing this organization is.”
The most valuable take-home I learned from these two women is that being different doesn’t mean you’re alone. The biggest asset we have is our support group of friends, family and mentors. True healing can only begin when we break down our walls and allow others to help us face and defeat our fears.
They aren’t so scary when we conquer them together.
Nicole Holder lives in Asheville and is the Marketing, Communications and Event Director for Outrider USA: creators of high-performance road and fully-adaptable off-road Electric Adventure Vehicles (EAV’s). Nikki@outriderusa.com, www.outriderusa.com