Northern California SCI Community Episode 2

In this next episode, Nick blogs about his latest impressions visiting more SCI Support Organizations in Northern California.

First he joined Tammie Van Sandt and Roger McKowan in Santa Cruz to find out more about The Life on Wheels Support Group.


Then, Nick and Franklin (An SCVMC SCI Peer Volunteer) were in San Francisco to attend the inaugural San Francisco Peer Support Meeting which was organized by Tom Shankle who leads the San Francisco Chapter of the United Spinal Association (USA).

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Next, Nick and Wojtek (A recent SCVMC patient) went down to The Bascom Community Center in San Jose to meet Troy Plunkett who was participating in a Wheelchair Basketball tournament.
Among other things, Troy heads up SCI Active Network which is a non profit organization who have created a network of paras and quads who want to get out and get active.

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Finally, Nick and Kevin (another SCVMV SCI Peer Volunteer) made the trip east to see first hand the great work Charlene Vine is doing at her SCI Support Group in Sacramento.Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 4.35.30 PM

As I approached the Dominican Rehabilitation Campus, I wondered to myself if you couldn’t get a better day in Santa Cruz. 72 degrees, beautiful blue skies and fresh sea air, the latter is the big give away that you are no longer in Silicon Valley. As I waited in the reception area, Tammie rolled in on her powerchair with her service dog Robbie. Robbie is a beautiful lab who you just can’t help yourself saying hello to. Tammie apologized for not recognizing me as we had met at SCVMC almost a year before in one of the Peer Group Sessions. The three of us then made our way through the single level rehab center to meet Roger who was also in a powerchair. After brief introductions, I followed Roger into a conference room where we all sat around a large table.
Roger gave me a good overview of The Life on Wheels Support Group which is all about getting people out and about in the Santa Cruz Area. Not unlike The Placerville Mobility Group, the emphasis is less sitting around in a meeting room and more about organizing events to get out and about in the community. Tammie and Roger regularly team up with which is another organization that is worth checking out, It was a real education for me to listen to Tammie and Roger as they are both long time high level quads, who through their enthusiasm and positive attitude have not only made a positive difference to their own fulfilling lives, but have touched others in a similar manner. They also gave me the opportunity to tell them more about the Patterson Network as well as my impressions of the SCI Peer Support in Scotland and I believe they were genuinely excited about what more we could do together here. As we left the building, I saw Roger’s modified work space where he supports the coordination of Rehab services for Dominican and we managed to get a few iPhone Photo sessions in before we said our good byes.


As I was going to be in San Francisco for the Peer Support Group Meeting on Thursday Night, I’d organized a meeting with George Elsner who is the Clinical Manager for Sutter Rehabilitation at the Davies Campus in the Castro. I learnt a little about Sutter’s SCI rehabilitation in the Castro and certainly need to find out a lot more about what Sutter do at various locations in Northern California for SCI Rehab and their involvement with Peer Support.

As we had a couple of hours before the start of the San Francisco Peer Support Meeting at 6pm, myself and my wife, Julie, enjoyed a bite to eat outside on the shady side of Castro Street. Can’t believe it was too hot in the sun at the end of February in San Francisco, they just wouldn’t believe me in Scotland. Despite leaving in plenty of time, we arrived at the Independent Living Center in Howard Street a minute after 6 which was when the meeting was scheduled to start. No apologies were necessary as everyone was just hanging out round the table. Tom Shankle the event organizer introduced himself and invited me to help myself to the drinks, sandwiches and even wine that was available on the table. I did a poor job hiding my disappointment about the fact there was no beer available as I was looking forward to one. Tom had told me that at the Berkeley meeting, beer and wine are available but this evening I had to settle for a soda, never quite the same.
I made my way round the table introducing myself, I first met Rich who was helping out Tom, Walter who was in a wheelchair, his partner Michelle and then Bruce who was in a powerchair and last but certainly not least, Nils, who was also in a powerchair. As we were waiting for more people to join, I took the opportunity to describe the Patterson Network and gave a preview of the material I plan to share there and at Berkley at next month’s support group meetings.
At this point Franklin joined us in his powerchair, he is my partner in crime on The Patterson Network and because he was in SF for a conference earlier that day, he seized the opportunity to meet up with the SF Chapter. Tom got the meeting formally going by allowing everyone to introduce themselves which was essential to help find out a little more about each others backgrounds.


Michelle (pictured above) had furnished everybody with a name tag which I found extremely useful because my short term memory is only slightly better than that of an insect. In contrast, Nils (Pictured below with Julie) demonstrated great powers of recollection reminding me of George Elsner’s name after hearing it once in an earlier conversation.


As we were about to finish our introductions, Angel, who was using a cane, walked in with her husband Scott. (Pictured below) We learnt that they were from Australia, as if we couldn’t tell by their accents, and had been in San Francisco for a year now and by the sounds of it, she and Scott are loving it.


Tom and Walter led a very interesting discussion which in many ways was a real eye opener for me. In San Francisco where having a car can be a liability, public transportation plays a significant role in helping disabled people move around the city. In the South Bay where myself and Franklin are from, the majority of the disabled people we know drive themselves as the suburbs are not set up to accommodate mass public transit. The two hours just flew by before we exchanged contact information and said our goodbyes. It was really cool to meet more people with passion and enthusiasm for helping the SCI Community and I am really looking forward to engaging more with the San Francisco Chapter of the USA. (Pictured below, Tom, Walter, Nick, Angel and Bruce)IMG_4646

The following day, I received an email from Troy Plunkett who was going to be in San Jose taking part in a wheelchair basketball tournament that weekend. He invited me and any one else I knew who might be interested to check it out. I’d met Troy a couple of weeks previously and was impressed by what he was doing in Peer Support. I invited Wojtek, a friend whom I had recently met at the SCVMC Peer Support Meeting. Wojtek was injured just 5 months ago and had recently returned to his work at Google and was facing the challenges that life in a wheelchair brings with “A Happy State of Mind.” Wojtek is the creator of the YouTube Channel of the same name that has been regularly featured on The Patterson Network. When I arrived at the Community Center on Sunday afternoon, I noticed Troy in a huddle with a bunch of serious looking team mates. They were preparing for a key match so I left him to get on with his pre-game preparation.I then made my way into the main Gym where a game was in progress. It was clear the Sacramento Team was dominating the game and I was particularly impressed by their speed around the court and their shooting accuracy. Holding a comfortable 40 to 8 lead, the final buzzer sounded ending the game and Troy’s BORP All Star Team were up next.IMG_4655

It became obvious in the warm up that Team BORP possessed a similar level of skill to the Sacramento Team so I knew this game would not be as one sided. In a very competitive match, both teams showed real quality and athleticism with the Sacramento Team always seeming to have the edge. With two minutes remaining in a grueling match, Team BORP pulled to within one score before a few uncharacteristic turnovers allowed the Sacramento side to put the game away with some ruthless finishing, what a game! Wojtek then joined me in the Gym and I found out that he had already met Troy several weeks ago at SCVMC. Wojtek was genuinely excited as he had never seen so many wheelchairs in one place and couldn’t wait to find out more about the athlete’s specialized sports chairs. Troy (Pictured with Wojtek and Nick) then joined us in the spectator area and after consoling him on his teams narrow defeat, he and Wojtek started chatting about their chairs and modifications.IMG_4658

As they continued to chat, I came to the realization that I was witnessing first hand the concept of SCI Active. “They play sports, they work through common issues, and help each other live the lives they want.”


I drove over to Kevin’s house in Fremont early Wednesday afternoon so that we would have plenty of time to make the trip up to Sacramento. We knew that the rush hour traffic in the East Bay could more than double the journey time so we wanted to make sure we arrived there on time for the 6pm meeting. We decided to take Kevin’s Toyota Sienna as it had been modified with a hydraulic ramp which allows Kevin to drive his mobility scooter right into the van and gives him a simple transfer to the driver’s seat. It would have been possible to take my SUV as Kevin can walk short distances using crutches, but it would mean we would have to dismantle the scooter and throw it in the trunk. Despite heavy traffic through the Walnut Creek area, the rest of the journey was very smooth and we arrived at the SCI FIT building in Sacramento with an hour to spare. The SCI FIT building is located in a new Business Park and Kevin parked in a non disabled spot in the sparsely populated parking lot to leave the disabled spots available for people who needed them most. When we entered the building, we were greeted by Kayla, (Pictured with Kevin) one of the SCI-FIT trainers and she invited us to make ourselves at home until the rest of the SCI Support Group participants arrived.


A year ago, I visited the SCI-FIT building in Pleasanton to meet the co-founder Dan Dumas and I found the set up in Sacramento was very similar. What was also very similar was the happy and positive vibe that seemed to inhabit the building (I am getting used to using that phrase.) As we waited, myself and Kevin got the opportunity to chat to some of the SCI-FIT members who were going through their paces and learnt about the benefits they had experienced with the program. As 6pm approached, we saw a couple of Paratransit vans arriving with some of the participants of the Support Meeting. Charlene herself rolled in just before 6pm with a large container of drinks and sandwiches on her lap and introduced herself with a friendly smile. What I must mention, Charlene on her own, started up the Sacramento SCI Support Group after the previous group at the Sacramento UC Davis Campus dissolved. As we started to set up for the presentation, Charlene mentioned that there have been as many as 20-30 people show up for the Support Groups although she suspected because of the late notice, the attendance would be on the lite side. After casually chatting away with all the participants, Charlene organized everyone in a rough circle and got the meeting going by giving everyone the opportunity to introduce themselves. Myself and Kevin introduced ourselves first and specifically thanked Charlene and the group for their warm welcome and giving us the opportunity to tell everyone about The Patterson Network and how SCI Peer Support is organized in Scotland. Each of the participants introduced themselves, Derek, who also did his rehab in SCVMC in 2013, had a T level injury, and was there with his mother who was supporting the group. George then introduced himself, he was sitting on a very similar mobility scooter to Kevin’s which worked best for him. Sonia, who was using a powerchair was there with her caregiver and did her rehab in Palo Alto VC. Finally Charlene introduced herself and we got to find out a little more of the circumstances of her L level injury and how she has been using a wheelchair now for more than 15 years. Charlene (Pictured below) also did her rehab at SCVMC. Incidentally, all the attendees were also active users of the SCI-FIT facility.


At this point, Lindsey, who was in a powerchair joined the meeting, this was her first time here. Charlene then gave an update on the latest news and up and coming events. She mentioned the which was taking place in Southern California on May 8th. This is a world wide event to raise money for spinal cord research and it was the first time I had heard about it (Shame on me.) I was up next with my presentation and we had a lively interactive discussion about the material and received some great feedback on what to do next. As usual, the 2 hours just flew by and the Paratransit had already shown up to pick up a couple of the participants. When the meeting had formally finished, we were helping Charlene clear up and she invited myself and Kevin for a drink at a nearby Bar/Restaurant, how could we refuse. As we sipped our drinks, we shared our dreams on how we could enhance the SCI Support Community. My solution was easy, we just need to empower more people like Charlene who are passionate and committed to support the people who have similar challenges. No funding can buy Charlene’s passion but I hope she lets me buy her a drink back next time we meet.

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