Community Spotlight: Gwen Alexander

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on March 16, 2022 # Community Spotlight

Gwen with friendsWhen Gwen Alexander was 15, she volunteered to help students with physical disabilities in an adaptive gym class that included exercise programs and sessions designed by an Occupational Therapist. It wasn’t meant to change her life–she simply needed a physical education credit for graduation. But sometimes, a vocation begins by accident.

“By the second day of class, I was like ‘Wow, I could do this,’” says Alexander, now the therapy manager over several inpatient recovery units at the University of Maryland Medical Center Rehabilitation & Orthopedic Institute (UM Rehab) in Baltimore, a part of the University of Maryland Medical Center “I really connected with it. That was my introduction to occupational therapy, and I never looked back.”

The revelation inspired a career that spans more than thirty years and has long been centered around spinal cord injury rehabilitation. After graduating from the University of Alabama, Alexander landed her first job as an acute care occupational therapist at the University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma Center. Just three weeks later, she found herself working with a patient who’d sustained a cervical injury in a diving accident.

The young man loved music, so in an early therapy session, Alexander modified a CD player to allow him to push the buttons himself. They celebrated when he did, and each hard-earned gain that followed. By the time he left her care, Alexander had resolved to focus her work specifically on spinal cord injuries.

“I thought about the ways people with spinal cord injuries have to adapt to regain a sense of independence and value and worth,” she says. “The contribution an occupational therapist could make really made a difference and meant something. I saw how I could help.”

In the decades since, Alexander has moved from acute care to acute rehabilitation, working with hundreds of patients of all ages and injury levels. Combining empathy with steady determination, she aims to help individuals not only survive their injuries but thrive in spite of them.

Gwen AlexanderShe works especially hard to provide support for the young Black men who arrive at the hospital with injuries acquired through gun violence. Research demonstrates that Black patients with spinal cord injuries face health disparities that adversely affect recovery, exacerbating gaps in quality of life and community integration–outcomes Alexander has seen all too frequently.

For young Black men without financial resources or insurance, Alexander says, the already challenging recovery and rehabilitation for any spinal cord injury become even more complicated.

“A lot of the time, the heart of their struggles is not addressed,” she says. “And this weighs heavily on my heart at night.”

Alexander, who oversees UM Rehab’s spinal cord injury support group and coordinates the Peer Mentor Program -- a partner of the Reeve Foundation’s Peer & Family Support Program -- seeks to strengthen support systems for newly injured young men by connecting them with former patients from similar backgrounds who are successfully living with injuries.

“The Peer Mentor Program is so valuable,” she says. “They need to see people who look like them and are doing well.”

But sometimes, therapy gains and available resources are not enough to navigate life beyond the hospital. In one case more than a decade ago, a patient’s lack of family support and financial resources prompted Alexander to become his caregiver.

He moved home with Alexander’s family as she helped him adapt to his C7-C8 injury. Eventually, he sought his driver's license, returned to work, moved into his own apartment and built a new life. The experience, Alexander says, “made me a better OT.”

“I was living what I was teaching,” she says. “It brought a whole different perspective and opened up another dimension for connecting with family members.” Alexander now serves as a Peer & Family Support Program mentor for the Reeve Foundation and facilitates a support group for family members/caregivers of those living with paralysis.

For Alexander, the work has always felt personal.

“This could be my mother tomorrow -- this could be my brother, my sister–this could be me,” she says. “I am here to help people see that life has not ended, the wheelchair does not define who you are. The same strength you have used to overcome other challenges, you use now. One day, one minute at a time.”

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.