By Justin Stark
Everyone’s heard the old cliché that there is no such thing as bad publicity. When it comes to publicity and spinal cord injury, I differ from that philosophy. When a media outlet does a story about someone with a spinal cord injury, it typically follows one of two paths; either it is about someone being active in life or about someone who has “overcome” the injury and is now walking.
The stories featuring survivors being active in life are great. You have people that have returned to work or school, become advocates, participated in sports, or demonstrated various other ways that someone with a disability can live a fulfilling life. Many of these individuals are truly inspiring. The stories that I get tired of and see little value in are the ones where you see someone get injured and then are “back on their feet” after overcoming the injury.
These stories always follow the same template. It starts with a little background about how active the person was pre-injury and all the things he or she planned to do in life. Then it transitions into the “tragic event” that would alter their life forever. Then there are some pictures from the hospital room and discussion about all the function that was lost. The next part of the story is where I have an issue. It usually shows the person on parallel bars or walking with his therapist and the person tells the viewers how he is walking because he/she never gave up hope or as a result of working so hard. Then it concludes with a nice little quote and the broadcaster saying what an inspiration the person is.
The reason I have such a problem with that story is it can give newly injured individuals false hope by disregarding essential factors of the injury. The greatest determining factor in return of function for someone sustaining a spinal cord injury is how complete the injury is, which ultimately comes down to luck. Another factor is the triage following the injury and the type of intervention that was available, such as administering the Methylprednisolone steroid, hypothermic treatment, and neck/back immobilization. These two factors often go unmentioned in these stories.
I’m not saying hard work and a determined mindset aren’t contributing factors to a person walking again, but all the hard work and determination in the world won’t allow someone with a complete injury to regain all of their function. There are also stories about individuals who after spending years in a wheelchair get up and miraculously start walking. Again, there is no mention as to the fact that the individual was an incomplete injury and has spinal nerves intact.
There is nothing wrong with offering people hope; however viewers need to be aware that the majority of individuals who sustain a spinal cord injury don’t have the functional return typically displayed in these stories. The important part to take from these individuals is not that they are up walking, but rather that they were determined to work hard and maximize their function, which is something everyone should try to do post-injury.