MISSOULA – At the University of Montana, seven recently injured individuals with paraplegia or quadriplegia are completing an immersive week of rehabilitation, recreational activity and mentorship on navigating life with a spinal cord injury.
UM is hosting the volunteer-based Empower Spinal Cord Injury Inc., a program dedicated to empowering those with spinal cord injuries to live happier, more meaningful and independent lives. Empower SCI pairs newly injured spinal cord participants with mentors who have learned to thrive with similar injuries.
For the past six days, the participants were supported by a specialized volunteer team of occupational and physical therapists, personal care aides and nurses as they engaged in activities like fishing, kayaking, yoga, wheelchair rugby, educational sessions and rehabilitation counseling.
It is the first time the East Coast-based program is being held outside of its home campus of Stony Brook University in New York.
Anita Santasier, chair of UM’s School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science, has been involved with the program since it was created eight years ago by physical therapists Carrie Callahan and Jessica Goodine and occupational therapist Elizabeth Lima.
Once at UM, Santasier knew she wanted to bring the Empower SCI program and staff to Montana for a summer session. She said the experience is transformative for everyone involved and embodies UM’s commitment to inclusivity and access in its health sciences curriculum.
“After acute care in the hospital following a spinal cord injury, people often don’t get the depth of how to fully reorient their lives with a life-changing injury,” Santasier said. “At Empower SCI, everyone learns something from each other. It’s truly a unique experience for the participants and staff, and we’re so excited to bring the Empower SCI program out West.”
At UM, seven participants with spinal cord injuries are spending the week in Panzer Hall, a fully accessible residence hall on the UM campus.
Participants undergo training and mentorship in vocational coaching, disability rights, transportation and counseling on relationships and wellness. But perhaps most importantly, they spend the week in a community of experienced wheelchair users as they learn to navigate the challenges and nuances of living with a spinal cord injury.
“What we continually hear from participants is the overwhelming feedback that they learn better ways for life to go on after a spinal cord injury,” Santasier said. “There’s resilience and an energy that is created that participants take with them and the program creates a lifelong connectedness.”
Students from UM, together with others from out of the area, spend the week with participants as aides, learning the intensity of care required of primary care attendants 24 hours a day, including overnight. They also are trained in emergency and hygiene care.
“Having our UM students experience the level of care required for those living with these kind of injuries fits our model of experiential learning, learning to view health care on a continuum and engaging in team treating in a multidisciplinary care model,” Santaiser said.
Participants’ experiences and therapies are driven by a set of self-directed goals. Santasier said those goals range from learning how to independently catheterize, roll over in bed without help, or transfer from floor to wheelchair, to name just a few.
Michelle Cole is a level-two trauma program manager at Providence St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula. Her son has a spinal cord injury, and is thriving as an independent business owner. Cole and two other nurses volunteered for the Empower program at UM. With her personal experience and more than 10 years of working as a nurse in intensive care units, Cole knows firsthand that the first year following a spinal cord injury is the most challenging.
“The entire first year is very difficult,” Cole said. “There’s grieving and learning your new normal and adapting to an entire new way of life. When we learned UM was going to host this important program, we wanted immediately to participate in an interactive way and partner with the University.”
Missoula-based nurses from Providence St. Patrick Hospital, UM physical therapy faculty and alumni, and UM students in physical therapy, psychology, exercise science, nursing, and speech language pathology, along with students from other institutions, are providing rehabilitation care in a variety of weeklong recreational activities. UM also welcomed health care professionals from more than 10 states to volunteer for the program.
Santasier said former Empower SCI participants are business owners, disability advocates, health care providers and many of them return as Empower SCI peer mentors.
The all-volunteer team, along with its Missoula partners, includes Providence St. Patrick Hospital, Summit Independent Living, Missoula Parks and Recreation and UM Dining, Housing, Transportation and Event Services, all of which collaborated to create a seamless and safe experience.
Participants in the Empower SCI program apply about six months in advance. There is a fee to attend the all-volunteer program, and scholarships and funding are greatly needed. For more information visit https://www.empowersci.org/ or call 315-427-2504.