[Ed. Note: We don't know the exact nature of Denna Laing's injury, but what follows is one story of at least an injury that seems similar.]
When I heard the news that Denna Laing suffered a spinal cord injury that resulted in "limited movement of her arms and no feeling in her legs," I had a complicated reaction. The first reaction, of course, was simply feeling bad. A spinal cord injury to an athlete results in something obvious that has been taken away from her life -- the ability to move, to skate, to live as she's always lived. But that feeling passed quickly, for me, into a huge mess of other feelings.
I know what's likely ahead for Laing, and have respect for the hard and sometimes grim work that people with paraplegia must undertake. I know this because my father -- a former outdoorsman, caver, explorer, geologist -- has paraplegia too.
Three years ago I joined my father at his rehabilitation center, Craig Hospital in Denver, Colorado, after he fell on his head while climbing down a rope ladder into a cave. Walking beside my father as he rolled through the halls to the Craig Center gym, I had to ask him the most basic questions about ability and disability:
"Dad, what do...paraplegics...what do you want your disability to be called?"
"You can call me dad," my dad said. "I have paraplegia, but it doesn't change who I am."
My dad has paraplegia, but he is not "a paraplegic." He had to point this out to me because it was outside of my experience, and this completely shifted my comprehension of his injury. Even though my dad, kept strong through 70 years of life by constant outdoor activity, could no longer take part in the hobby that caused his paraplegia, the most fundamental part of him remained unchanged. My dad is who he is, and now he simply moves using mechanical devices. He's a 21st century cyborg, but he's unchanged: he's my dad.
What's ahead for Denna Laing will not be a picnic for anyone -- not for Laing, and not for her care-givers, not for us supportive community of fans. What's ahead are weeks of assessment and recovery. First, doctors will monitor her body's healing, the brain functions impacted by the accident, as well as her physical recovery. When her body reaches the maximum amount of healing that it can, she will be able to move to a rehabilitation center.
The rehabilitation center will train her to use her body again with its new set of abilities. Some of the things that I remember from my father's first few months at Craig Hospital were these:
Dad talked to a staff psychologist a lot. His girlfriend, who is my dad's primary caregiver, talked to the psychologist too. Growing toward mental health is vitally important for learning how to live together again with new challenges.
Dad learned the basic mechanics of movement all over again. He learned to heft around the lower half of his body using the upper half. It required coordination, upper-body strength, the use of a sliding board to get from one location to another, and the ability to bend at the waist to heft his legs into cars. Dad had to learn how to move from lying down onto his chair and back, and to do it without injuring himself. The staff also taught him how to operate and maintain his wheelchair. In the case of Laing, who has limited upper body motion, there will be other ways to learn to move -- the rehabilitation staff will teach her these things.
How do you care for your body in new ways, from using the bathroom to taking a shower? My dad re-learned these things too, and built them into a daily routine that went a long way toward making him feel independent again. Relying on other people is a necessity for people who have different abilities and are forced to live in a world that is not built for them, but maximizing independence is vital.
Quality of life and the future
Dad said that hope is important -- that every human needs to feel like they can keep striving for a better life every day. For some people with paraplegia, regaining as much motion and movement as they can is important. Craig Hospital supported its community by providing a range of inclusive activities that provided things from a gym with a focus on strengthening all the parts of the body, to field trips for activities like hiking, skiing, and swimming, to other activities. These events with a community of people who were in the same boat as he was were, for my dad, most important of all.
There are other things that a good recovery center will teach, but these span the first few months, at least.
Recovering from and living with spinal cord injuries are the work of a lifetime for both the patient and their caregivers. Everything changes, especially the way the injured lives in and with their body. It is sometimes a daily fight against despair knowing that their body can no longer do things the way they remember doing them, and knowing that their caregivers are affected as profoundly as they are. It also requires a huge shift in paradigm.
It takes a brave person to learn to live in a body that's different from those around them, and takes a powerful mental shift to know that this new body can still give back as much as any body on the planet. The work of Laing and her family will be difficult -- but it can be done, with the help of some excellent facilities that teach and train people who have paraplegia.
And Laing needs to know that we are out here -- that she is not alone, that she is surrounded by a strong community of people who live with different abilities every day, and believe in her life and future.