Romance and intimacy are a critical part of a person’s overall health, happiness and wellbeing. When a person is seriously injured and comes to Craig Hospital, the goal is to help that person achieve their highest level of independence and life quality.
Just like Craig provides patients with extensive occupational and physical rehabilitation, sex and intimacy are also addressed as part of the patient’s overall rehabilitation process. In fact, every patient is enrolled in an hour-long sex-education class (patients can opt-out and those under 18 need parental approval). Craig is one of the only rehabilitation facilities to offer a sex-education class for spinal cord injury patients and their loved ones. During the one-hour class, patients begin to learn how they can be intimate again after their injury. The patient’s partner is often encouraged to join the class.
“People who have sustained life-changing injuries can still have amazing sex lives,” says Avery LaFleur, MSW, clinical care manager at Craig and sex-education class leader. “But the foundation of a healthy sex life can be summed up in one word: communication.”
Avery begins his class with redefining what romance means and what it means to have an open line of verbal communication with partners. “It becomes more important than ever after an injury, especially if partners were used to providing non-verbal cues to each other,” Avery says. “For example, if the male is used to being the initiator and is the one who is injured, he and his partner may need to redefine what initiation means and possibly switch roles. For some, just holding hands is a romantic gesture that means more now than ever before.”
“People are often shy talking about sex. It’s a hard conversation to have and many of us grew up not really being able to speak openly about sex and communicate what we need with our partner,” Avery says.
There are also emotional concerns. Avery tells patients that if they’ve dated before, nothing changes. “Patients are still the same individual from the neck up! It’s about how to find that swagger and confidence again,” says Avery.
Avery says that oftentimes patients are intimidated to ask questions in the class, but many come up to him after the class to ask questions or they schedule private meetings with him to explore these topics with their partner.
Regan Linton, a Craig graduate who sustained a T4 spinal cord injury in 2002 from a car accident, attended the sex-education classes when she was at Craig. Regan started dating about three years after her injury. In the beginning, she said she had so much internal judgment, but soon realized that the judgment was stemming mostly from the fears and assumptions of other people, people who never had experienced paralysis.”
Regan now finds that sex can be fun, adventurous, frivolous, messy, tender, exploratory and more. “Nothing about this has to be depressing or sad. It’s a new version of myself,” she says. “I have had long-term relationships, and it has been a beautiful experience. It is about a multitude of things – emotional and physical. It is not black and white. The human body is very colorful and you have to be open to it. I have deeper sensations and have discovered the power of the brain in sexuality. People have the ability to connect through all sorts of pathways when being intimate.”
Going through a life-changing injury enables people to talk about their bodies. “People in wheelchairs know their bodies incredibly well,” Avery says. Regan agrees. “Yes, we are resilient. We are not going to break but we are still emotionally vulnerable. We’re still fun! We’re still sexual! And we’re more creative!”
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