“Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.” ~Albert Einstein
Why do you want to do it? It was a question I was asked repeatedly by friends before I started my volunteering placement in a spinal injuries unit, the uncertainty in their eyes reflecting back their own fears around life-altering disability.
It was difficult to put into words what drew me to becoming a patient support volunteer. I was content in my job, had an active social life, hiked and swam every weekend, but still there was something missing. My own life felt sheltered, and I wanted to feel part of a bigger world where I could make a difference no matter how small.
So every Monday night I would dash out of work early, change into my volunteer t-shirt, scrub my hands, and join the nursing staff on the evening shift.
My first night walking the long, hospital corridors, I felt real trepidation. What would I say to someone facing paralysis? How would it feel to be told you’ll never walk again? My own worst fears played out as I passed rooms filled with wheelchairs and complex lifting paraphernalia. How would I cope in their shoes?
My job was to befriend and support patients who were frequently far from friends and family. I quickly learned that the smallest gestures can make the biggest difference.
Turning the pages of a book, reaching for a cardigan, sucking on a straw are simple gestures that we all take for granted—until you have a spinal injury. In typical British fashion, I would also make endless cups of tea while listening to tales of long, gruelling days in the rehabilitation center.
And never once did I hear anyone complain—rehabilitation was viewed as a precious opportunity to regain control of their lives. In their journey toward independence, I would delight in each small step of progress. Going from sitting to standing up was a huge victory, like climbing Mount Everest with an equivalent emotional high.
Through the ups and downs of rehabilitation, I learned that nothing is certain with spinal injuries. People who are told that they may never walk again sometimes defeat the odds. And what is possible is often far more than what’s not possible.
From the first tentative steps, their journey progressed to the first tentative outings to cafes and restaurants. I was struck by the steely determination my patients showed in navigating the complex logistics of a world designed with only the interests of the able-bodied in mind.
So much of my own fearful attitude toward disability, I realized, had been colored by negative societal stereotypes. Wheelchairs symbolized confinement when in reality they provided much longed-for independence.
Patients are not objects of pity. Nor are they the heroic figures portrayed in the media. They are ordinary people gradually adjusting to changed circumstances—a capability that we all have within us.
Supporting people in such life-changing circumstances put all of my own struggles into perspective. Worries about jobs, money, and relationships shrivelled to miniscule proportions. I felt a profound sense of gratitude for my own mobility—something that I’d always taken for granted but which I was starkly reminded can be taken from me at a moment’s notice.
My volunteering experience gave me a whole new perspective on life and taught me a handful of powerful lessons about surviving hard times, including…
1. It’s not what happens to us, it’s how we respond.
None of my patients were responsible for what happened to them, but they all took responsibility for how they responded. Our attitude to adversity is everything and ultimately shapes our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Life will always throw up challenges and we have very little control over them. The only thing we can control is our response. We can choose to be a victim and remain powerless or we can face situations head-on and choose to live the very best life we can.
That choice is always within our control and determines what sort of life we ultimately live, irrespective of our circumstances.
2. We’re all more adaptable than we think.
Time and again, I was reminded that we can adapt to the very worst that life throws at us. We’re designed to withstand trauma and have an innate ability to not give up.
Coming to terms with life-altering injuries is a gradual process of adjustment where we learn that sometimes our beliefs do not always match reality.
Few things in life turn out to be as bad as we imagine them to be. What at the beginning appears impossible gradually becomes manageable as we adjust and adapt to a new normal.
Some doors close but new doors open. It may not be the life we’d planned, but it is what we choose to make it.
3. How you feel today isn’t how you’ll feel tomorrow.
How we respond emotionally to a life-changing situation can rapidly change from day to day.
I would worry about patients who were in despair one week only to find that their attitude had changed the following week.
In life, we encounter many dark nights of the soul, where in the intensity of the moment, life can feel completely hopeless.
But if we hold on until the next day things can change. An incremental shift in our thinking, a gradual acceptance, or a sudden change in our circumstances can radically alter how we view our situation from one day to the next.
“It won’t always feel like this” is a mantra that always rings true no matter what situation we’re in or where we are in our life’s journey.
4. Take small steps forward each day.
Rehabilitation is all about gaining mastery of your situation.
Patients were encouraged to take small steps each day toward greater independence. When you’ve suddenly lost your mobility, each step you take is filled with trepidation.
But when we’re immobilized, taking action is the only way forward. The first step is the hardest but leads to the next and the one after that until you’re finally on your way.
When faced with life’s difficulties, the only way out is through.
5. Be patient.
One of the most frustrating things about a spinal injury is not knowing how long recovery will take.
Some patients set their sights on set calendar dates and would suffer frustration and disappointment when the outcome did not meet their expectations.
Patience is a lifelong skill that puts us in control of our situation by allowing us to mindfully experience the journey toward a positive outcome.
By not putting timeframes on our expectations, we can simply observe the different learnings along the way and live more peacefully in the present knowing that we will reach our destination when the time is right.
Volunteering in a spinal injuries unit has expanded my horizons in ways I never expected and has given me a new perspective on life-altering disability. My patients have shown me that it is possible to move far beyond the limits that are imposed upon you to make the most of the life you still have.