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Hillside worker mentors wheelchair patients

Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple Beth Shank of Jackson Township, a longtime employee of Hillside Rehabilitation Hospital, takes aim with her crossbow during target practice.

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of Saturday profiles of area residents and their stories. To suggest a Trumbull County resident, contact Features Editor Burton Cole at bcole@tribtoday.com.

HOWLAND — Beth Shank — then 20-year-old Beth Parson of Niles — was a backseat passenger on March 3, 1994, when the car hit a patch of black ice and slammed into a utility pole on state Route 46 in Niles. Her spinal cord damage never healed.

Paralyzed from the waist down, Shank uses a wheelchair to get around — to her car, to the deer stand, onto the basketball court, to chase her son, to… well, for pretty much everything.

“I try to explain to people living the rest of your life in your wheelchair isn’t a burden or a curse,” said Shank, 44, who now lives on the North Jackson side of the Milton Township-Newton Township border.

“People do backflips in their wheelchairs. They race cars and dirt bikes. They hunt, cook, hold jobs and have babies. We do everything — just a little lower to the ground.”

Shank’s official job at Hillside Rehabilitation Hospital is clerical coordinator. “I’m in the maintenance department,” Shank said. “I do ordering of the supplies, answering the phones, placing orders — things secretaries do. And keeping them in line. I give them a hard time.”

Her real job — or perhaps mission — is as the support group peer mentor for new spinal cord patients.

She won’t barge right into a new patient’s room and start laying out the facts of life lived on wheels or in leg braces. “I do a roll-by, let them see me,” Shank said. “If they are interested, they will ask a therapist to see the lady in the chair.”

She holds a perspective that the interdisciplinary staff of physicians, therapists, psychologists, social workers and others at Hillside don’t — Shank lives the life. To the fullest. She said she wants to cheerlead others on to do the same.

“I’ll answer whatever questions they have : What do you do if you have an accident in public and can’t get to the restroom in time? Can I have children?” she said.

Shank tells them about the kits she stashes for cleaning and changing, and regales them with stories about her husband and son. She lets it sink in that while she’s been a paraplegic for 24 years, she married 17 years ago and her son was born eight years ago.

They might hear the story about the time that Justin, then 3, became angry that his mother couldn’t walk. “He came into the bedroom where I was sitting on the bed and yelled, ‘Mom, walk! Daddy walk. Mom walk.’ And he took my wheelchair!” She had to call husband Jack in to get her chair back.

“The biggest question (I get) is, ‘Will I ever walk?'” Shank said. “That’s a tough question. It depends on how the spinal cord heals.”

Sometimes, it does. Sometimes it doesn’t.

“I am a T12, L1 paraplegic,” she said.

The T12 vertebra — the last of the thoracic, or chest, vertebrae — ends just above the hip girdle and bears the most weight of the thoracic vertebrae. The L1 is the first of the five lumbar, or back, vertebrae between the rib cage and the pelvis.

She spent several weeks at MetroHealth Hospital in Cleveland. Rods were inserted into her back and she needed extensive therapy. For that, she checked herself into Hillside because she witnessed the rehab work on a friend who went there after being injured by a drunken driver.

“She came out walking,” Shank said. “I knew I wasn’t going to walk, but I was going to try.

“When I worked in a nursing home (as a state-tested nursing assistant), I didn’t see the kind of therapy that would get them back to daily life,” Shank said. “Hillside … taught me how to get up curbs, go grocery shopping, cook, how to take care of myself in case of an accident in public… I knew how to work everything at my own level.

“I don’t eat, sleep and dream walking. I deal every day with the wheelchair.”

That includes her passion of hunting. In early November, she and her pink-and-black camouflaged crossbow took down two deer at Maumee Bay State Park. The hunting trek to Tiffin in late November didn’t go as well. She and her crew didn’t spot any deer.

She remembers her first pheasant hunt after the spinal cord injury. Her hunting buddies mounted her wheelchair to the front of a four-wheeler. She sat in the chair with her shotgun across her lap while they drove her into the woods.

“They called me Granny — from the ‘Beverly Hillbillies,'” she said.

Shank got her bird.

“I used to play wheelchair basketball,” she said. “It’s wicked. I’ve broken other people’s legs. I’m serious.”

She did plenty of horseback riding at Camelot Therapeutic Riding Center in Southington from 1999 until the 2010 birth of her son.

“For two years, I was runner-up for Miss Wheelchair Ohio, 2007 and 2008. In 2009, I was a judge.”

Stories like these are what she shares with newer spinal cord patients.

“There are some people who can’t get past ‘I’m in a wheelchair,'” Shank said.

Her advice: Don’t try to force them into accepting their lot in life. Instead, after they’ve had time to process the turns in life, take them to sporting events where they can see how other people in wheelchairs adapted their skills to stay in the game. Let them discover for themselves the things they can do. Give them time to grow into their new ways of doing things.

“They might be in a dark place, but this might lift them up,” she said.

A few years back, Hillside Rehabilitation Hospital boasted about an extensive adaptive sports program, with basketball and bocce courts, an archery range, a putting green, horseshoes and a number of other fields on campus. The program was shut down in cost-cutting, but new owners Steward Family Hospitals plan to restore the program. There will be a grand re-opening in the spring, Leonard Dulay, director of business development at Hillside, said.

“And Beth is a big part of that,” Dulay said. “Beth is one of the leaders of that, a champion.”

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