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Former Craig Board Chair Shares His Experience Returning to Work

November 02, 2017

Sustaining a life-altering injury like a spinal cord injury (SCI) is not something anyone can prepare for. For many, it means a complete change in lifestyle and their livelihood. At Craig Hospital, one of the goals is to help patients achieve their highest level of independence and life quality.

Former Craig board chairman, Justin Moninger, understands this all too well. He’s not just a dedicated volunteer giving of his time and talent to serve the hospital and its mission, he’s an advocate for those who have sustained a spinal cord injury because he knows firsthand what it’s like.

In 2005, Justin injured his spinal cord when he dove into a pool while on vacation in Steamboat Springs. He was just 25 years old. He spent three and half months at Craig, and part of his rehabilitation was re-learning how he would do his job as a software developer. Justin is paralyzed from the chest down and has limited movement in his fingers.

Justin said his wife's parents got him a laptop while he was still in the hospital, so he was able to start working on the computer as an in-patient. “I worked with my occupational therapist on hand dexterity and problem solving around some general skills that I would need at the office,” said Justin. “I remember being very nervous about my ability to get myself lunch while I was at work, so we discussed options and approaches to that.”

His own experience at Craig, which helped him to return to his job in a part-time capacity about seven months after his injury (and full time after a year), is one of the things that drives his ongoing support of the hospital. He believes it’s critical to focus on vocational rehabilitation to help train or re-train graduates for the workforce.

When he returned to work, he utilized assistive technology such as voice recognition software, typing sticks and a special trackball. Justin said his company and co-workers were extremely accommodating and helpful. “I was very fortunate that the type of work I did prior to my accident was something I could still perform after my injury with minor adaptations,” said Justin. “Today, I still use a trackball and occasionally utilize voice recognition, but I've become fairly adept at typing with one finger.”

Based on Justin’s experiences, he cautions other patients about taking one day at a time. “As an in-patient, there are so many physical and mental hurdles to overcome, that focusing on the specifics of returning to work might be a bit daunting early on.

“The initial focus is first getting healthy, re-learning daily living skills, understanding the complexity of your injury and how to cope with it physically and mentally. Once you have a good handle on those things, then it is a good time to start discussing life after Craig.”

Justin says the timeline is different for each person and their unique situation, because it takes time just to figure out how to be happy in life again.

His advice would be to have returning to work or school as an absolute goal, and start discussing that with therapists as soon as the person is ready. “If that path includes job retraining, then the technology field is a great option,” said Justin.

He added, “The key is to get back to some type of work where you re-engage with society. For some that work could be volunteering or raising children, but no matter what your injury level is, there is meaningful work to be found. It isn’t easy and there are lots of hurdles, but the mental and physical benefits are tremendous.”