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Returning to School After Injury

Five questions for former patient Will Bucher about making the transition back to school after rehabilitation for a spinal cord injury.

Will Bucher was a junior at Holly Springs High School in North Carolina when he sustained a spinal cord injury in a motorcycle crash, resulting in paralysis from the chest down. In fall 2016, Will began his rehabilitation in Shepherd Center’s adolescent spinal cord injury rehabilitation program, which not only focused on his physical rehabilitation, but also allowed him to pursue their academic goals. Will kept up with his classes while he was a patient in the adolescent rehabilitation program, and Shepherd Center also helped facilitate his back-to-school transition through a donor-funded program called No Obstacles. The result: Will graduated on schedule this spring with his class.

Will is now headed to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he’ll be living on his own in a dorm. We spoke with Will just before he headed off to UNC about transitioning back to school after a traumatic injury.

Q: What’s something you didn’t anticipate when you went back to high school?

Will: I didn’t realize the classrooms were as tightly packed as they were. So just getting around the class was hard – there are chairs and desks everywhere. I usually ended up sitting near the door so that I didn’t have to go deep into the class.

And the elevator at school kept breaking down -- it was so annoying! I had two classes on the third floor. I’d go to the office and say, “Hey, the elevator’s broken.” They’d get the janitor, and he’d say he’d have it fixed by tomorrow. One time they just told me to go home. But another time, it was broken for two weeks straight, so they moved my class to the first floor. They were great.

Q: You talk about how helpful your school was. How much of that was a result of conversations people there had with staff at Shepherd through the No Obstacles program?

Will: I think Shepherd helped with that a lot. People at Shepherd called the school and told them what I’d need – wider desks, things like that. Katie [Kimball, MS-OT, OTR/L, occupational therapist in the adolescent rehabilitation program] came to the school and put her foot down right away. She’d say “he’s going to need this” or “he’s going to need that.” Had it been me, I would’ve said, “I might need this, I probably need that,” but Katie really pushed them. She made it perfectly clear to them what was needed.

Q: Did it help keeping in touch with kids you met at Shepherd Center through the adolescent program?

Will: Oh, yeah. I talked with one friend about little problems all the time – getting to class, people being weird about our disability. I’d say, “I feel like people are staring at me in all my classes.” And he’d say, “I have the exact same feeling. Then I’ll look around and nobody’s even looking.” One time he called to say he fell out of his chair at school and everybody was like, “Are you ok? Are you sure you’re ok?” and they sent him home. I was like, “Nice!” I knew falling out of a chair was no big deal. I’ve done it multiple times. It’s nice to have someone who can relate.

Q: Now you’re off to college. What’s the biggest adjustment you’ve had to make so far?

Will: With college, you have to self-identify – you have to make the first move to let them know what you need. I had to tell them I’m a paraplegic and need an accessible dorm room. None of it’s hard to get, but they don’t come and present it to you like in high school. So before you declare what school you’ll be going to, check with their disability office first.

There was a school I wanted to go to but when I talked with their disability office, they had almost no options for me. When I talked with North Carolina, they were so good. It was clear I could go there. That’s really useful.

Q: Any advice for someone with a disability just transitioning back to high school?

Will: Don’t let the disability stop you. At first, I was timid about it. I thought everybody looked at me differently, that they didn’t want to do stuff with me or hang out. But there’s no point in worrying about it. I knew I was the same person. I acted the same. It was all in my head. They’re not staring and saying, “Look, there’s the wheelchair kid.” They don’t care. It’s like when you give a speech in front of class, you think everybody’s listening to everything you say, every mistake. But nobody’s listening – half of them are on their phones. The only one who cares is the teacher, and half the time he isn’t listening, either!

Written by Drew Jubera

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.