Karen developed a spinal cord injury at the age of 15. Despite the many challenges, Karen didn’t let her injury stop her from achieving her goals.
She has since gone on to have a successful career as a paediatric social worker, is a passionate advocate for spinal cord injury care and is also a wife and mother of two young children. Karen is also a member of the Perinatal Interest Group - a diverse committee working to increase dialogue and awareness between health care providers and women with spinal cord injury with an interest in sexuality, fertility and reproductive health. A one-day workshop hosted by the Perinatal Interest Group and supported by Rick Hansen Institute was held in November 2013 involving consumers, clinicians and researchers to initiate a collaborative process for addressing the significant gaps in knowledge and services for women with SCI.
This is Karen’s story.
An ordinary life
People often assume that my biggest dream or hope would be to walk again. But that has never been the case. Sure it would be great, but I have a pretty great life sitting down.
At the age of 15 years old I woke up one morning with a very sore back and a half hour later I lost feeling from the chest down. I was rushed to the hospital and after many weeks of medical testing and examinations it was eventually determined that I had a spinal cord injury as a result of abnormal blood vessels in my spinal column. In medical lingo it is called an arterial venous malformation. At this time, I am sure my family and friends worried I would never date during high school, would never go to the prom, would have limited career options and certainly would never marry or have children. But it is funny. I never thought that way. I always hoped and dreamed that I would still have an ordinary life albeit seated.
Hear Karen tell her story in this video.
Moving away from home
Just three years after becoming paralysed I graduated from high school, packed up my bags and moved to a city five hours away to attend Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, NS. I trudged through snow and ice with the help of friends to get to class and to get groceries (and drinks for the many parties!). I figured out how to reach my clothes at the bottom of a top loading washing machine by carrying BBQ tongs with long handles so I could reach in. In other words, I figured out ways to adapt my daily tasks despite the obstacles in order to live an ordinary life like my peers.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts, I entered into the Bachelor of Social Work program at Carlton University in Ottawa, ON. This time I moved even further away from family and childhood friends, but I found my way with the help of new friends. After completing my degree I moved back to Halifax and began working as a Rehabilitation Counsellor with the Nova Scotia office of the Canadian Paraplegic Association. I had the opportunity in this position to learn so much about counselling and advocacy but after 1.5 years it became clear to me that I wanted to work in a hospital setting with children and youth. All of my volunteer work and summer jobs had been working toward this goal and it was time to take a leap in this direction. I was accepted into the Master of Social Work program at the University of British Columbia. I had never been to Vancouver prior to the day I flew completely across the country but I had a belief that it would all work out in the end. And it did.
And then I met a boy
I planned to live in BC for only one year. However, that idea did not go quite according to plan. I met a quiet guy for a coffee date which led to another and another and we soon found ourselves in a committed relationship. My plans to move back home were put on hold and eventually aborted all together.
Focussing on my career
After finishing my MSW I accepted a position working in the Emergency Department of one of the main trauma response hospitals for the Fraser Health region. I remember on my first shift going up to the nursing desk after being paged and hearing the Nurse in Charge asking where the social worker was. I replied it was me. Her look was priceless but she picked her jaw up off the floor and filled me in and I was quickly off doing my job. I soon gained the respect of the staff as I was a hard worker and had the opportunity to support patients and their loved ones during the most difficult days of their lives. In many ways this work was the most rewarding I have done in my career. Eventually, I began to feel the weight of the sorrow I saw each day and began to explore other career options, landing at a position working with children with developmental disabilities and their families.
Starting a family
So that boy I met for coffee and started dating? Well we fell in love. We decided we wanted to make a life together, which included a life with children.
I think many people -- including our families -- thought it would be impossible or too risky for me to become pregnant. When I asked my family doctor about options she replied “Most people in your situation wouldn’t take that on.” To which I replied, “I am not most people.” Fortunately I work within the health care system so knew to push past this obstacle and asked for a referral for a preconception consultation to find out about options, risks, etc. At this appointment we were over the moon with joy to be told pregnancy was definitely possible and something we could look forward to in our future.
I became pregnant with our son in 2009. It took a bit of work to ensure all the professionals involved were connected and communicating with each other but overall everything went well. I must admit pregnancy was challenging as my body changed in shape and size and moving about became difficult, but it was so amazing to feel the little kicks and turns inside my belly. Contrary to most people’s beliefs, I did not have a C-section and did not require forceps or vacuum delivery. Our son was born healthy and at term in September 2009.
We quickly settled into life as a family of three. I thought we might have to hire a nanny to assist me in caring for my son but I was able to do everything myself (well, with the help of my husband!). I was worried we would need to seek out adapted baby care items such as a crib, a carrier, etc but in the end I was able to find items in baby stores that worked for us. When out in the community, I carried my son in a fabric sling until he was too chubby to fit and then switched to a front style carrier. When looking for a crib, we took him with us to the baby furniture department to try various styles of cribs and find one that worked for us. Once he started walking, I used a backpack with a long strap attached which I would attach to my belt loop to give him his independence while keeping him close by.
Once our son turned 3, we began to think about having a second child. It was important to both of us for our child to have a sibling but I worried about the practical challenges of caring for not just one child but two! In the end our hopes and dreams won out. In July 2013 our daughter was born with no interventions required at her birth. We feel so very fortunate to now be a healthy and happy family of four.
I often get asked if the children are “mine”, if I had them “naturally”, if I have a nanny who "takes care of them for me”. I find these comments hurtful but I always bite my tongue and try to be polite and to educate the people making these comments rather than lashing out at them. I remind myself that for many people what we have done is different than the norm or what they thought was the norm and that can sometimes be uncomfortable for them. Hopefully when they see our happy family they see all the possibilities rather than just the obstacles.
So, you see, dreams really can come true after a spinal cord injury. Many of my dreams have come true. I am married to a wonderful man, have a healthy and caring son and daughter, a meaningful career that I love, and friends and family that encourage us during hard times and share in our many joys along the way. You see, life is good even while sitting down.
Hear Karen share her story