Guest Post: Returning to Graduate School After a Spinal Cord Injury by Chris Barkley

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(Chris Barkley is a C4 quadriplegic from Spokane, Washington and is attending Arkansas State University)

My name is Chris, and in January of 2019 my life changed when I sustained a C4 spinal cord injury as the result of a skiing accident.

What happened is still somewhat of a blur. I had caught the left front edge of my ski and landed on a flat portion of the mountain which pushed my C4 vertebrae directly into my spinal cord.

What followed included three weeks in intensive care, a month of inpatient rehabilitation at Craig Hospital cut short by a pressure injury, ten weeks in acute care, another three months of inpatient rehabilitation, and ultimately returning home to Spokane, Washington.

When SPINALpedia reached out and offered me the chance to write about returning to graduate school I was ecstatic. I’ve been following their page since discovering the amazing spinal cord injury community on Instagram, and their blogs have helped me immensely in my recovery. I knew this would be a great opportunity to help others who are looking to return back to school after a life-altering injury.

Before getting into my return to school, it is important to understand my life prior to the day of my accident.

In 2015 I graduated from Eastern Washington University with a degree in marketing. Immediately after graduating I was hired by a top-five insurance broker and quickly worked my way from a customer service representative to an upper-level staffing analyst in just two years. I was very good at what I did and took an immense amount of pride in the work I delivered. I am a numerate person (numbers make sense to me), and I used my experience and education to further my career.

Fast forward to being 26 years old, unable to move in an ICU bed, and being told you will never walk or use your arms again. The portion of my brain that propelled me up the corporate ladder before was quickly replaced by the portion of my brain trying to save my life. Every ounce of my being went into my physical recovery, and it stayed that way for the first two years after my accident.

It took the COVID-19 pandemic and losing the ability to attend therapy or go to the gym for me to finally ask myself the question my brain had tuned out.

What am I going to do for the rest of my life?

Through physical therapy I’ve regained function in my arms and wrists and possess the strength and ability to navigate a computer with somewhat ease.

My spinal cord injury changed me to the very core of my being though.

I’ve come to realize that everything I do now has more intent behind it than anything I did prior to my accident. It took hundreds of hours of therapy to re-learn how to breathe, swallow, eat, talk, and everything else that I had taken for granted before. I knew that it would take up just as much time for me to realize what direction I wanted my life to take.

What am I good at? What do I actually like doing? Did I even like my old job?

Day in and day out those questions ran through my mind, but ultimately led to one.

What impact will my work have on other people?

Boom.

I had the realization I no longer want to just tell time and watch it go by; I want to build a whole new clock for those in my community.

Like the semi-truck running over my spinal cord description that a doctor used 2 1/2 years ago to describe the state of my injury, that same semi-truck launched me into discovering that I wanted to learn about nonprofit and community-oriented work.

Through the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, I was able to learn about Master of Public Administration programs and the types of careers they can lead to. They have helped me enroll at Arkansas State University, and I am completing my master’s degree online!

The assistive technology team at Craig Hospital gave me the knowledge needed to build out a computer set up that works best for me and my abilities. Currently I use a keyboard, a trackpad mouse, and a MacBook Pro to complete my work. I intermittently change between using voice to text software and my own hands to type. This allows me the flexibility to edit as I go and navigate my computer easily.

Returning to graduate school has presented many challenges but has been one of the most rewarding things I have done in my life.

I may not know what I will be doing after graduating, but I know it is going to help people.

And that, is what matters.

– Follow Chris on Instagram at @chriswbarkley

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