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Peer support

survivors prove there is life after spinal-cord injury. Janet Wright Reports

Adjusting to life after paralysis is a long process that often is both physically and emotionally painful.

Physiotherapists can do a lot to help, and the Spinal Injuries Association (SIA) can provide some exceptionally qualified backing.

There are 10 NHS spinal-cord injury centres in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which provide highly specialised services. But outside them, most physios have relatively little experience, as the number of people paralysed by illness or injury each year is quite small.

‘One of the biggest challenges facing patients with spinal-cord injuries is that most physiotherapists won’t come across this injury often throughout their career,’ says Peter Bishop.

As senior neuro-physiotherapist on the acute neuro-rehabilitation ward at the Royal United Hospital in Bath, Mr Bishop has met more than most.

Patients with spinal-cord injuries often spend time on his ward as part of their transition to a specialist unit. And he is enthusiastic about an innovative SIA scheme.

Founded by CSP Fellow Baroness Masham of Ilton, who was paralysed in a riding accident, the association has most of its services delivered by people who themselves are living with spinal injuries.

In 2008 this extended to include a team of community peer support officers who visit patients in district general hospitals or neurological/rehab centres.

‘The service was set up in direct response to requests from patients and their families for support immediately after injury, and from healthcare professionals caring for newly injured people,’ says the association’s head of service development Anne Curran.

‘It receives a great deal of interest from physiotherapists working in hospital or community settings, who wish to better understand the needs of someone living with spinal-cord injury,’. she says.

‘Or they may be caring for patients who they think would benefit from talking to someone who has rebuilt their life after paralysis.’

Officers provide peer support for newly injured patients who are awaiting transfer to a specialist centre and for paralysed people who aren’t going into a centre.

They also help family members adjust to the changed situation, which affects them too. And the team can provide in-service training to healthcare professionals in non-specialist settings, raising awareness of life with spinal-cord injury.

‘I have particularly enjoyed working closely with the Spinal Injuries Association, and specifically Peter Hutchings, their community peer support officer for the south,’  says Mr Bishop. ‘Over the years he has supported many of our patients and their families, providing information from the personal perspective of someone who has rebuilt their own life after paralysis.’

Mr Bishop would like to see the benefits spread more widely.

‘I’d like as many hospitals as possible to be aware of the support available through SIA and the community peer support service and how to get in touch,’ he says. fl

The Spinal Injuries Association is at www.spinal.co.uk; freephone advice line 0800 980 0501.

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