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Rebuilding lives after injury

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Damian Smith is determined that people with spinal cord damage get the most out of life

“Transforming lives after spinal cord injury” is the mission of both rehabilitation nurse Damian Smith of the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Centre and Back Up, a national charity for which Mr Smith is an advocate and volunteer.

Through a somewhat indirect career path, Mr Smith developed a passion for caring for people with spinal cord injuries.

“Nursing was never a career that I thought I would pursue,” he said. “While at Southdowns College, I had a gap in my timetable to fill. A friend of mine had just completed a pre-nursing course and sold the idea to me.”

Mr Smith started nurse training in 1990 and, after qualifying in 1993, worked as a staff nurse on an elderly rehabilitation ward.

“I have to be honest and say that it wasn’t my first choice,” he admits. “But, once there, I settled quickly and thoroughly enjoyed just over two years working with a motivated and dedicated team. The ward sister inspired me and gave me a set of principles that I carry with me today.”

In pursuit of a new challenge, Mr Smith started working at the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Treatment Centre at Salisbury District Hospital in 1996.

“This job ticked a lot of boxes for me. It had acute patients, patients on ventilators, rehab patients, young, old, male and female,” Mr Smith said. There, he saw the positive effect his work could have on patients with spinal cord injuries.

“The patients were there for 6-8 months, sometimes longer,” he said. “I enjoyed the rapport with them and seeing their journey from the beginning, right through to their discharge home… a journey to maximise their potential and prepare them for life with a spinal cord injury.”

In his current position as a community liaison charge nurse, he advises patients with spinal cord injuries on general health and helps connect them with support agencies such as Back Up.

“I now have the opportunity to follow our patients’ life journeys beyond the spinal centre and see them in their own homes,” he says. “We provide a lifelong service.”

“To witness someone abseiling in a wheelchair really makes you feel humble and inspired”

Through his position at the hospital, Smith has become an advocate for Back Up, which works in partnership with spinal injury centres across the UK to help people with devastating injuries regain independence and confidence. According to Mr Smith, “Back Up aims to ensure that a spinal cord injury shouldn’t prevent someone from getting the most out of life.”

Volunteers, who are often wheelchair users themselves, provide practical training and perspectives for activities as common as getting around the house with a cup of tea in hand, which could prove challenging or impossible for a wheelchair user.

The diagnosis of a spinal cord injury can be devastating at any age. It can result in an array of effects ranging from mobility difficulties to complete paralysis.

With courses designed for a variety of interests, including arts, crafts and horticulture, and outdoor activities such as cycling, kayaking and rock climbing, Back Up pushes the limits of what is thought to be possible for people with spinal cord injuries.

“To witness someone abseiling in a wheelchair really makes you feel humble and inspired,” said Mr Smith.

Mr Smith has taken part in several courses as a supervisor and volunteer. “Each time, I come away feeling incredibly privileged to have been

part of an amazing experience. The difference in the confidence of the participants is immeasurable.

“I can’t praise Back Up enough for the extraordinary work they do and they really do transform people’s lives. I’m just grateful to be a part of that and will continue to support their work as much as I can.”

He reflects: “With Back Up and nursing in the spinal centre, I feel that I can have a positive impact on our patients and make a difference. Isn’t this why we choose nursing as a career?”

Rachel Stanback

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