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Urban rehab facilities often treat spinal cord injury patients who were injured by gun-shot wounds. These patients typically are young and economically disadvantaged, and their disabilities are a direct result of self-destructive behavior. While rehab facilities and their staff work hard to help these patients find a new purpose and new goals in life, this isn’t always satisfying when they continue to see the same sort of young faces year after year.
This is why Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and Care Network in Chicago began two community programs geared toward preventing youths from becoming victims of violence and helping disabled young people regain a new lifetime focus. The programs are called the Disabling Bullet Project and the In My Shoes Program.
"We have a lot of patients who are victims of violence, usually spinal cord injury and brain injury patients," says Kris Vertiz, LSW, spinal cord team leader for the 86-bed Schwab rehab hospital. "We felt we needed to give back to the community."
Schwab began the In My shoes program in 1996 by forming a partnership with the Circuit Court of Illinois probation department. The program involved having rehab patients, who were injured because of violent activity that often related to gang involvement, speak with youths who were on probation. The patients also spoke to school children about the importance of making positive choices in life.
"They tell their story of what they were doing, either being involved with gangs or selling drugs, and how that resulted in their injury and why they are in a wheelchair now," Vertiz says.
Patients in the program also describe what it’s like to be in a wheelchair, and don’t spare details about their skin problems, breathing difficulties, and elimination. Those who have had brain injuries talk about their loss of memory and how difficult it is to get back into their communities.
The program also has groups of at-risk youths visit the rehab hospital to attend workshops that show them what it’s like to be in a wheelchair. "We have dressing stations where they simulate paralysis and simulate what it’s like to get dressed while paralyzed," Vertiz says. "We put weights on their legs and arms and show them what to do to get dressed."
Another station deals with swallowing issues. The youths are given pureed food and have to drink water through a spigot. Since head injuries often result in visual impairment, the youths are given distorted glasses to wear. They are also shown a small computer board and told to communicate their needs by using a straw in their mouth to push a computer link that would describe whether they are hungry or wet and needing to be changed, Vertiz describes.
After a session of this type of hands-on education, the youths typically are scared and they express a desire to get out of their gangs, she says. Seeing peers who have experienced spinal cord injuries or traumatic brain injuries often has a greater impact on the youths than even going to funerals of dead friends, Vertiz notes. "They hear about kids who get shot and die, but they don’t hear about the people who end up in a wheelchair," she says. "A lot of them have been shot and they feel invincible."
Presenters at the program give the children three scenarios of what will happen to them if they continue with their gang or drug selling activities: "You’ll end up in jail; you’ll end up dead, or you’ll end up in a wheelchair like me because people are only invincible for so long," Vertiz says.
The program now is funded with about $33,000 by the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, which receives money from license plate sales, she adds.