People in the valley who have dealt with spinal cord injuries or other neurological mobility impairments — whether directly or through a loved one’s trauma — will now have access to completely free psychological services.
That’s thanks to a new partnership between Bridging Bionics, a nonprofit that sponsors medical equipment and physical therapy for those with the aforementioned impairments, and Pathfinders Aspen, which provides professional counseling for those who have experienced a life-changing event.
The Callaway Room of the Third Street Center in Carbondale was packed Monday evening. People sat in chairs, both wheeled and otherwise, and a few service dogs waited patiently during the organizations’ joint presentation about their newest initiative.
Amanda Boxtel, Bridging Bionics founder and executive director, was forthcoming about her own battles in coming to terms with her then-new reality as a paraplegic 27 years ago.
“I had nothing. There were no resources available to me, and I had to figure it out on my own, and I had to figure it out in some really hard, hard ways that pretty much took me to rock bottom,” she said. “You’re not half a woman, you really are very much a whole, beautiful woman. But I had to figure that out for myself; nobody could tell me. It took awhile; it’s taken 27 years, and it’s still my lesson.”
So when Pathfinders executive director Allison Daily invited Boxtel for a cup of coffee, she was elated. She also saw the conversation as an opportunity for Nate White, a poster child of seemingly miraculous recoveries and most recent Bridging Bionics board member.
“I invited Nate into the conversation because on his own accord, he’s taken it upon himself to mentor his own Bridging Bionics clients. So I invited him into the conversation and said, ‘Nate, why don’t we make this yours?’ People look up to him and he’s really made an astounding recovery, but he also went through some hard mental times, so I invited him into the conversation and said, ‘Let’s do this.’”
In 2016, White was paralyzed in a kayaking accident. And although today he is again walking and again enjoys some of his favorite outdoor pastimes such as mountain biking, he, too, acknowledged that the psycho-emotional trauma was overwhelming at times.
“I had a really, really hard time with a life-changing injury or neurological condition. I was lost; my parents were lost; my brother and sister were lost. We really didn’t know what to do,” he offered. “I continued to where I am today, but I had some really dark times and dark moments. My life was really all about skiing and kayaking and biking and all these things. When all those things were taken away from me, I definitely thought about suicide and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be this new person I was going to be.”
But even if counseling is available — and since many paraplegics and quadriplegics have limited resources because of limited employment and ongoing medical expenses, he pointed out — many people are reluctant to utilize them. White counts himself among those who felt an acute stigma around seeking help.
“I had a definite aversion to therapy, even after I got hurt in 2016. I think a lot of that is cultural, too,” he said. “There certainly is a stigma about therapy, about counseling. I think that stuck deeply with me, and I realize now, having had some counseling since then, that that would have been a really ... critical component of my recovery: just dealing with my new life, my new body.”
He’s hopeful that addressing psychological and emotional traumas will expedite the physical recovery process for those who take advantage of Bridging Bionics and Pathfinders working together.
“I’m pretty confident that we’re going to see way more physical gains when folks are dealing with some of the latent traumatic baggage of their injuries,” he said. “I think the purpose for this collaboration was to kind of start treating the whole human being, the whole person, not just the physical manifestation of the injury.”
What that actually looks like is still open to discussion. In fact, Monday’s presentation was as much about getting feedback from the Bridging Bionics community about their needs as it was announcing the Pathfinders partnership.
“We’re not trying to force anything; we want to be there for you, for the family. Families are just aching, hurting, struggling. We want to show up for everybody in whatever way is needed,” Daily said. “I’ve got 10 counselors who are available.”
Of those, Max Mancini will likely be a first point of contact, and anyone interested can call him directly. White said that it was Mancini’s empathy that first really struck him as being different from White’s image of a therapist analyzing the patient on the couch.
For his part, Mancini is no stranger to trauma.
“I think I fell asleep and passed into oncoming traffic,” he told the group of a fateful drive to Crested Butte from a trip to Denver. “When I woke up, I couldn’t say anything because there was a breathing tube. I asked for a pen and asked if my girlfriend had made it, and they said she hadn’t, and I immediately blacked back out.”
The girlfriend he’d just learned was dead had been six months pregnant.
“I immediately asked for a therapist. I had surgeries coming up that I had to focus on, but through that, finding someone was so important for me,” he said. “Through all that process, I really realized what counseling can do. What it means to be human and to suffer and to have fun and all of that.”
It ultimately inspired a career change for Mancini, and he and his wife share a counseling practice in Aspen.
“My hope is that it’s more accessible than it was for me. Before [the] accident, it’s something I never would have considered, but I realized it can give a little bit back to everybody,” he said. “It’s something so simple and there’s such a big stigma around it that we’d like to erase.”
The emphasis in Monday’s conversation really was everybody: those who’ve sustained a life-changing injury, but also their loved ones and caregivers. Possibilities range from free one-on-one counseling to group therapy sessions to retreats complete with massages.
“It’s up to you. We’re just opening a door, and if you want to make the phone call, it has to come from you. Maybe it’s in a month, and maybe it’s next year. There’s no time requirement, but this is a gift to you. And if you’re a mom or a dad or a wife … this is all for you: the loved ones that are a little bit separated,” Boxtel said. “I’m really proud of you for showing up tonight. Look at the room, and look at the community we’ve built.”