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Building Healing and Comfort Through Peer Mentorship

May 26, 2021

Erik Hjeltnes has done a complete 180. After sustaining a spinal cord injury at 23, he avoided his peer mentor in rehabilitation. Today, he knows the power of peer mentoring — so much so that he helped to start Craig Hospital’s Peer Mentor Program.

“I was a tough case. I wasn’t quite ready when my peer mentor approached me. Recently, we connected on Facebook and he was pleasantly surprised to see us in the same role,” Erik says. “It’s kind of ironic.”

There’s an instant understanding and connection that often comes from going through similar experiences, and that connection can bring healing and comfort. That’s the basis of the Peer Mentor Program, matching current Craig patients, graduates and family members to like-minded peers — many who are Craig graduates themselves.

“When you are first injured, it’s really hard to visualize two to three years down the road,” Erik says. “Initially, I looked at how much I lost. I had to stop thinking about what I couldn’t do and see what I could do. It was a complete change of mindset.”

Erik and his wife, Brooke, moved from New York to Colorado in 2014 when she accepted a job at Craig as a physical therapist. A few years ahead of their arrival, Erik sent a proposal to Craig suggesting a peer mentor position. No funds were available at the time, but he still chose to volunteer at the PEAK Center, the impressive adaptive health and wellness center at Craig, and was eventually hired as the center’s coordinator.

Launching the Peer Mentor Program

During his years as a volunteer and coordinator at the PEAK Center, Erik built long-term relationships with several Craig patients. Those connections form the Peer Mentor Program’s core group of volunteers today, which has more than 100 local mentors and several out-of-state mentors. The program is designed for both spinal cord injury and brain injury patients.

“Peer mentorship is a two-way street. It helps the new patient understand where they are and see the potential of where they can go, and it helps the peer mentor talk about their injury and reflect on how they overcame challenges,” Erik says.

In 2018, thanks to a generous grant from the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Colorado, the Peer Mentor Program at Craig was officially launched. Candy Tefertiller, Executive Director of Research and Evaluation at Craig, had the vision for the program and secured the grant. Today, Erik and his colleague, Allison Gipple, help run the program.

The Power of Peer Mentors

Peer mentors visit with patients while they are in the hospital and continue the relationship long after they return home. The program also matches family members of patients —parent to parent, sibling to sibling, spouse to spouse.

“The physical effects are felt by just the patient, but the psychological effects are experienced by the whole family,” Erik says. “Peer mentoring is all about relationships, and it’s those relationships that make our program successful.”

Many Craig graduates name the Peer Mentor Program as one of their most important experiences during their time at Craig. Besides vital emotional support, the program offers practical support, including helping people transition back to home, perform daily tasks and navigate travel, recreation, relationships, sex, returning to work and school, and so much more.

In his spare time, Erik enjoys working out in the gym, playing with his dog, Riley, and as a self-proclaimed “foodie,” cooking and visiting local restaurants with his wife.

“I joke that I have a second job in the evenings — a ball thrower for our Belgian Malinois. While Brooke cooks in the kitchen, she has to dodge balls. I want a second dog but we haven’t come to an agreement on that… yet,” Erik quips.

The Craig Foundation is currently raising funds to help continue the Peer Mentor Program into the future.