Peer & Family Support Spotlight: Helena Sparling

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on November 04, 2021 # Peer & Family Support Program, Peer Spotlight

Helena using a wheelchair. There are mountains in the view behind her.During a late winter storm in Wyoming, Helena Sparling’s car ran off the road after hitting black ice. The 2009 crash left Sparling with a C5-C7 complete spinal cord injury (SCI), resulting in no mobility or feeling below her chest.

“When I woke up in the hospital, all I kept thinking about was how thrilled I was to be alive,” says Sparling. “I was 60 years old, and I had so much life ahead of me.”

The mother of four and now grandmother says she just stays focused on what is important.

“Our family has had three weddings and four births since my injury,” says Sparling. “I greatly appreciate the opportunity to be present and part of life. There are things I didn’t pay much attention to before my injury that I enjoy so much more now.”

During her time at Baylor Scott & White Institute for Rehabilitation in Dallas, Texas, Sparling saw others living with a spinal cord injury enjoying a good quality of life. She felt assured to know that everything eventually went back to normal. She believes that once you get used to being in a wheelchair, you can do everything you did before, just a little differently.

“Sometimes, I forget that I am paralyzed. It is not a focal point in my day,” says Sparling. “If the doorbell rings, I answer it. You just evolve. Now I need two hands to open the door instead of one. Paralysis isn’t at the top of the list of life’s greatest tragedies. You just need to reorder your life to be in a chair.”

Sparling wanted to pass on this sense of well-being and demonstrate to others that life would be ok. She volunteered to be a peer mentor at Baylor, which has a training partnership with the Reeve Foundation Peer & Family Support Program. Since completing the program’s peer mentor training in 2016, Sparling estimates that she has talked to more than 30 people across the country.

Helena spending Christmas with her family“The Reeve Foundation Peer & Family Support Program is terrific,” says Sparling. “It gives me the chance to connect with people of a similar age and interests. I’ve really enjoyed the new set of friends I’ve made and the nice community it builds.”

Sparling reads Reeve Foundation website posts and newsletters regularly. She thinks the Reeve Foundation is one of the few organizations that is working toward a cure in an open and direct way, but she is most grateful for the Reeve Foundation’s advocacy work.

“I actually think their advocacy work may be as important as finding a cure. It affects everyday life for everyone living with paralysis,” says Sparling. “To know that trained professional advocates are out fighting for my rights is a terrific benefit.”

In May, Sparling participated in a Reeve Foundation webinar about women aging with paralysis. It is a topic she knows is top of mind for both her mentees and her able-bodied friends.

“I plan on living as long as everyone else, but our bodies are more fragile with paralysis, and it is important to be proactive and alert to catch issues early,” says Sparling, who has had a heart issue, breast cancer and kidney cancer. “Just like everything else, it is helpful to talk to someone who has already been down the road you are on.”

When Katie Banister was diagnosed with breast cancer, she asked Peer & Family Support Program staff about mentors living with SCI who had experienced breast cancer treatment. Banister was connected with Sparling.

“Helena was helpful in giving me advice, and it gave me a reassurance that I do have support, and I appreciated her reaching out to me and giving me her experience information,” says Banister.

Helena and her granddaughter in front of a birthday cakeSparling is always happy to talk about any tips, and she loves to give support to others.

“I try to encourage people to do everything they can to be independent. If there is something you can’t do, keep trying,” says Sparling. “One day, you will be able to do it. Always keep working toward an independent life. It is a continual process.”

She strongly recommends that others considering mentoring give it a try. She thinks many don’t realize that they can mentor as much or as little as they want, depending on their availability.

“When you are injured, you put your hand out to the person in front of you on the road for help and support, and then you reach back to grab the hand of the person behind you,” says Sparling. “We are a group, a chain, that keeps moving together, helping each other up and down the chain. Mentoring is a great opportunity to share with others on a similar journey.”

Sparling continues, “Life is pretty great, and I’m glad to be on this earth. I enjoy every day of it. Everyone ends up with challenges. I think the people with challenges you can’t see may have it harder than we do. It is a better world if we can see the benefits, not the challenges, and support each other.”

You can request a Peer & Family Support Program mentor here.

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.