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Charlotte Area News

Networks Of Trauma Survivors Help Patients With Recovery

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It’s been a violent 2019 in Charlotte. There have been 50 homicides, including last week’s shooting at UNC Charlotte that killed two and injured four. As the media reports on these tragedies, we often focus on the physical trauma – reporting whether a survivor has life threatening injuries. But the road to physical and emotional healing can be long. In response a network of trauma survivor groups has sprung up at many hospitals to provide mentors to victims.  

There’s a level of kinship with someone who has been through the same injury. The Trauma Survivors Network recognizes how important that relationship can be in a patient's recovery. In the last 11 years, local networks have formed at 98 hospitals where trauma victims are treated. In the Charlotte area, the local network is at Carolinas Medical Center, run by Jessie Levy. She said there are more than 40 volunteers.

“A lot of patients feel really isolated and like no one understands what they’ve been through,” Levy said. “Patients do give a lot of feedback that it's really helpful to talk with somebody who's been through a similar experience and has felt what they felt. Has had the same successes and joys and frustrations and pain.”

Last year the program did close to 900 peer visits with adults and children who suffered injuries like gunshot wounds, spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries. Levy matches up peer mentors and patients based on injury type and personality. She remembers matching up patients last year that had different injuries but a similar way of thinking.  

“It wasn’t that they had similar experiences in the hospital, it was just that I knew that they would find something to talk about in their experiences and the way that they were handling crisis and trauma was really similar,” she said.

Levy said patients can be paired up with a mentor shortly after arriving in the hospital, or after they leave. The Atrium Health chapter started six years ago. 

The national Trauma Survivors Network says one if its most robust local chapters is at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville. Forty-eight-year-old Jimmy Smith is now an active peer visitor there. He got involved after he recovered from being shot 11 times in October 2015 by a man who had a dispute with Smith’s older brother. Smith is still in a long tough physical recovery. But he says the emotional toll is what hit him hardest.

“The last time that I thought I had surgery and they had postponed it, I pretty much tried to take my life,” he said. “I tried to unhook all my equipment, I told my doctor I was done.”

Smith said about nine months into his stay around July Fourth 2016, he went to watch the fireworks to get out of his room.

“And this lady just happened to be there watching it with me. And her son had been involved in a car accident and was pretty much going through life support,” Smith said. “And we just had a conversation. And she is actually the one who introduced me to it.”  

Smith then started getting visits and joining groups of trauma survivors who were also struggling to get back to a normal lifestyle.

“I guess its togetherness of it,” Smith said, “And it makes it easier to integrate back into society or back into my community.”

When Smith goes to talk to patients he’s honest with patients. He explains they are going to struggle and tells family and friends to just listen because they can’t take away the pain and suffering. Smith said he can recognize signs patients are having a hard time mentally or socially and convey that to doctors.

“You have a lot of patients that refuse to open up or feel a certain way of not opening up to a doctor,” Smith said once he explains what happened to him, he tells patients. ”[You] don’t have to be ashamed of what’s going on. Say what you have to say because I’ve been depressed, I done tried to unplug the machine. Everything you're thinking about doing, I’ve thought it.”    

Smith says mentoring patients also helped him. And some research on the benefits of the network shows it also helps surgeons better manage a patients psychological recovery. Which Smith said is an ongoing process because he’s always thinking about what he could have done differently to prevent himself from getting shot.

“I was real outgoing person. I was really inovlved in sports and now I kinda pick where I go,” he said. “Even though there’s not a threat. In my mind I see  the potential of one. And that scares me. So I eliminate myself from it.”

Smith takes one day at a time and has been able to exceed his doctor’s expectations. He was told he may not walk again and would have to wear a colostomy bag for the rest of his life. He walks with a cane and is in the process of trying to get a part time job.