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Returning to Independence After Spinal Cord Injury

July 19, 2021

Robbie Copp grew up just outside of San Diego in Alpine, California, skateboarding and riding motorcycles with his family. As an adult, he found himself working for his father’s sheet metal fabrication business, which is truly a family business — his wife works there as well. For the past five years, he’s been involved in CrossFit and loves being part of that community.

Last year, Robbie was spending the Thanksgiving holiday with his family — including his wife, Lauren, who was expecting at the time, and their 3-year-old son, Dean — at their vacation home in Yuma, Arizona. The day after Thanksgiving, Robbie was riding dirt bikes with his dad and some friends when Robbie missed a turn, went over a cliff edge and landed on his back, breaking his collar bone, ribs and back and resulting in a complete T-12 spinal cord injury (SCI).

Robbie was airlifted to the closest trauma center at a hospital in Phoenix. Admitted to the hospital at the height of the COVID-19 spike in Fall 2020, he spent 18 days alone in the hospital post-injury undergoing several surgeries to repair his broken vertebrae. Four days after arriving at the hospital, Robbie tested positive for COVID-19 and was unable to have surgery to repair his collarbone, leaving it to heal on its own.

Robbie knew two people who had been patients at Craig Hospital over the past several years, and he had always heard from them that Craig was the best place to be for recovery and rehabilitation from a spinal cord injury. With their support and the support of his wife and family, he started the admissions process at Craig.

Robbie arrived at Craig several weeks later and felt welcome right away. His clinical liaison, Tom Horan, who he had previously only met on Zoom, was waiting at the door for him. During a time when visitors were not allowed in the hospital under COVID-19 precautions, this helped Robbie feel more at home.

Robbie in pool therapy at Craig Hospital

With his collarbone still healing, Robbie’s therapy had a slow start since he was limited with what he could do with his upper body; he started out doing physical therapy with several patients with higher-level injuries to allow more time for healing. But once he was ready, Robbie’s days were filled with intensive physical and occupational therapies.

“I’d never thought about how many things would be different living in a wheelchair,” Robbie says. “From maneuvering obstacles in the chair to bowel and bladder function; from travel to sex — I learned so much from the programs but also just by being around and talking with other people who were going through the same thing.”

Robbie practicing parenting from a wheelchair at Craig Hospital

He took advantage of the tools and education available at Craig to help parents learn to care for newborn babies from a wheelchair knowing he’d soon be welcoming a new child. He also learned to drive adaptively, along with many other independent skills, and is certain he wouldn’t have been as prepared to go home and be as independent as he is today if he had gone anywhere else for rehabilitation after his injury.

Through Craig’s Peer Mentor Program, Robbie also met a former patient who owns a CrossFit studio where he was able to try a workout and get excited about eventually returning to CrossFit after finishing more therapy.

Robbie says he was actually disappointed to leave Craig as he’d built strong relationships with the people on his care team. “They do such an amazing job, and it’s not easy. They put up with a lot.”

When Robbie returned home, he intended to go back to work at his father’s company, but after some gains in movement in his legs, he decided to take more time off to do continued intensive therapy. He plans to return to work soon, but for now, he’s spending time with his family and welcoming his new baby.

“I was nervous to come home, but I knew that I had learned all I could possibly learn through Craig’s specialized level of care. It truly prepared me to return home to a life of independence.”

Cover photo credit: Stephani Dennis Photography