Pizzas are sizzling in the oven, specialty beers are flowing from the tap, and lively tunes are blasting throughout the bar. It’s just a typical, crowded last Monday at The Lucky Lab Brew Pub in Portland, Oregon. And although the atmosphere is already rocking, when West Livaudais and his crew arrive around 6:30 p.m., the place really gets rolling. Livaudais is the founder of The Oregon Spinal Cord Injury Connection and the monthly Wheel Connect gathering, which brings the local SCI community together for a social evening to gather support and share experiences.
“When we started a little over a year ago, we only had five people show up. Now the group has grown to 35, with family and friends sometimes making it 50,” Livaudais says. “We have become close and have developed a camaraderie and strength together through our relatable stories.”
For Livaudais, that story began back in 2013. Having always possessed a deep desire to help people, Livaudais was living in Guatemala working for Medical Teams International as the maternal and child health program coordinator when he was hit by a truck and sustained a severe hip injury. Livaudais returned to Portland immediately. Complications followed and he developed a dangerous infection and abscess, which ultimately pinched his spinal cord, paralyzing him at the C7 level.
Livaudais says the idea for Wheel Connect came to him on a whim while having a drink after therapy with a friend who was also used a wheelchair. “I thought, why can’t we make this a group thing?” he says. “We started to invite a few more people, and the whole idea kind of blossomed from there.”
Wheel Connect was the first step, and from that Livaudais created the Oregon Spinal Cord Injury Connection to help those with spinal cord injuries throughout the state of Oregon. “Oregon SCI Connection is a group for all those affected by spinal cord injury, new and veterans alike,” Livaudais explains.
In addition to Wheel Connect, The Oregon SCI connection has also created a forum to open dialogue between people with spinal cord injury and health care professionals to help transition to life after rehab. The forum covers a variety of issues, including emotional, physical and psychological obstacles that the SCI community faces. The meetings typically take place at the Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon in Portland. Recent workshops and discussions have included dating and relationships after SCI, regaining independence through transportation, and a discussion among women with SCI, just to name a few.
The Oregon SCI Connection recently became an affiliated chapter of United Spinal Association, a big step in furthering the reach of the organization beyond Portland and throughout the entire state, according to Livaudais.
He plans to launch an SCI peer mentoring program, which would train experienced people with SCI to help individuals with new injuries. “I imagine developing a community health outreach program that would improve the health outcomes and social and emotional adjustment of those recently discharged with SCI. Veteran wheelers with SCI are qualified to be community health coordinators because they have knowledge of the difficult adjustment to this new life,” he says. “As community health coordinators, they would collaborate with local SCI rehab programs and home health to outreach to newly-discharged people with SCIs and their families.”
Although his path may have suddenly changed, Livaudais says he is still fulfilling his desire to help people, but just in a different way.
“It was through my work with Mayan mothers in rural, indigenous communities in Guatemala that I learned how to utilize the dynamics of community engagement to leverage a community’s strengths to promote health,” he says. “Ultimately, I want to strengthen and engage others to promote their own health and well-being. Now, finding myself in the SCI community, I want to use my experience and training to build this community to promote its own strength. We’ll learn as we go.”
Wheel Connect meets on the last Monday of the month from 6:30 p.m. to close at the Lucky Lab Brew Pub, 1495 NW Quimby Street, in Portland. For more information on The Oregon Spinal Cord Injury Connection, visit www.oregonsci.org.
— Maureen Gazda