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Back to Work and Life as a Mom After a Spinal Cord Injury

March 03, 2021

While vacationing in Belize in June 2017, Carley Baldwin watched a few of her friends flip off a dock at the resort into the ocean. Rather than flip off the dock, Carley chose what she believed was the safer option and dove into the water. She hit what she believes was a sand bar with her dive, and when she floated to the surface, she couldn’t feel her legs.

As a competitive swimmer at The University of Arizona, she had spent countless hours diving into the pool, learning water safety, and even going on to be a swim coach herself. Knowing something was seriously wrong, she began instructing her friends on how to best brace her body and neck. They took her to a local clinic, but due to the severity of her injury, she had to be flown to Belize City, where a CAT scan revealed a fracture in her C4 and C5 vertebrae. Carley was then medically evacuated to a hospital in Miami, where she learned she had an incomplete spinal cord injury and underwent surgery. After two weeks, she was transferred to Craig Hospital and began her rehabilitation while she still had no voluntary movement below her neck.

Carley Baldwin with son at Craig Hospital

As a mom and former elite athlete, Carley was determined to fight each day during her rehabilitation. She began making progress and regained some movement in her upper body and hands. Her son, who was almost four at the time, was incorporated into her rehab program, too.

“He would ride his bike down the hall while I was learning how to navigate my wheelchair,” recalls Carley. “The way Craig approached my injury shaped how my son views my disability. He was involved in everything while I was at Craig, even swimming, therapeutic recreation and the NeuroRecovery Network sessions. Outside of Craig, he also attended ongoing training sessions with me at NeuAbility, an adaptive exercise center in Denver. It made a huge difference.”

Carley Baldwin with son on his bike at Craig Hospital

While Carley was at Craig, she found support in other patients, which she says was so important in her recovery. Now she serves as a mentor and meets with other Craig patients, with a focus on parenting from a chair and community reintegration, especially into the workforce.

“I am passionate about parenting from a chair and community integration,” Carley says. “There is a fantastic wheelchair community. And at Craig, we are family.” She also helped start a “Canvas and Mocktails” group with a fellow Craig grad to offer space for connection over art and drinks.

“I didn’t realize how amazing Craig was until I left. Being there is incredibly hard work, which was harder than any intensive training I had gone through being a competitive athlete. But now I call it the Spa Craig, because the real work began when I left. But the staff was still there to support me even after my discharge,” she says. “My doctor, Dr. Brubaker, saw me every single morning and was involved in every step of my care. She’d even find me in the PEAK Center. The nursing staff and doctors made you feel at home. I had my very own dedicated team, including a physical therapist, occupational therapist, therapeutic recreation therapist and nursing staff. It was the same people who woke me up each day. Their energy was incredible, which was so needed when your whole life is changing.”

Carley Baldwin at the park

Carley discharged from Craig in September 2017, and between working on her physical recovery, returned to work for Medacta, an international company specializing in innovative orthopedic and neurological implants. She was fortunate to be able to move from her position as US Product Manager in their spine division into a marketing role.

“Craig’s community reintegration program had a huge impact for me,” she says. “When I started back to work, Craig helped me set up adaptive technology in my home office, and navigate returning to the workforce. I had the brainpower but was navigating it through this new body.”

Carley Baldwin and colleagues at PUSH Gala

Now that Carley has been back to work for two years and has faced the challenges of reestablishing her career, she wants to be a resource for new Craig grads who are reentering the workforce. Her advice?

“Managing the workplace is tough,” she says. “My best piece of advice for others is to never let your disability stand in the way of where you can go in your career, whether it is making your workspace accessible or stepping up and conquering challenges you didn’t think possible from a chair.”

For Carley, having support from her family, friends and especially her son, means having faith, humor and perseverance through adversity.

“I don’t consider June 4th the day of my injury,” she says, “but rather the day I survived.”