Peer & Family Support Spotlight: Peter Nowell

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on June 30, 2021 # Peer & Family Support Program

Peter Nowell calls it the “black void.”

“It pretty much happens to everyone. You go from excellent, attentive 24/7 care to nothing,” says Nowell. “From the hustle and bustle of the hospital, you go back home to nothing and nobody. Your spouse goes back to work, maybe the kids are at school, and you sit in a chair alone for eight hours a day. That’s when it really hits you what a life-changing experience you’ve been through.”

Nowell knows a lot about the black void. After a 2005 motorcycle accident, he was lucky to regain much of his functionality from a C4-C5 spinal cord injury (SCI). He was discharged from the hospital six weeks after his accident and went home to a quiet house.

For eight years after his accident, Nowell traveled a mostly independent rehab path focused on helping to financially support his family. Then his focus shifted toward giving back to the SCI community.

“I attended monthly peer support groups, but I wanted to do more,” says Nowell. “The day is long. I wanted to help fill the big black void. That was my major motivator to get involved with mentoring.”

In 2016, Nowell became the first Reeve Foundation Peer & Family Support Program certified peer mentor at Ohio State University (OSU) Dodd Rehabilitation Hospital in Columbus. Through a partnership he helped facilitate between the hospital and the Reeve Foundation, there are now 28 certified mentors at OSU.

“I’ve probably mentored more than 50 people nationwide over the years,” says Nowell. “Mentoring helps me learn about myself by hearing about other people’s experiences. There are areas of general commonality and areas specific to the individual.”

For those thinking about connecting with a mentor, he offers some advice.

“Reach out and use your mentor. They are there to help. They have been where you are now,” says Nowell, who shares many of the Reeve Foundation healthcare guides with his peers. “And be really honest. It doesn’t help to be overly optimistic or unrealistic. Accept where you are. You need to get through the barrier of reality to start healing.”

He also has advice for potential mentors.

“It is important not to thrust your own experience on others. Be encouraging. Listen. Help people focus on what they can do, not what they can’t. And be there. Follow up with your peer. It is nice for them to know that someone is thinking about them.”

Nowell believes that one of the keys to creating a successful mentoring relationship is to make a personal connection while the peer is still in the hospital. Some patients are reluctant to reach out and ask to see a mentor, but the vast majority appreciate the opportunity to chat with someone with lived experience if they drop by. That’s why Nowell started a program he calls Sunday Rounds at Dodd.

“Once a month on Sundays, which are typically quiet times at hospital with no therapy scheduled, a couple of mentors would poke their heads into a room to introduce themselves to the people with a spinal cord injury,” says Nowell. “Many of these people may not have taken the initiative to find a mentor but typically appreciate talking to someone who’s experienced the rehab process themselves.”

With the pandemic, Nowell had to adjust his efforts. He now hosts two meetings each month by Zoom. This has helped maintain contact with discharged patients but making that initial personal contact in the hospital has been tough to adequately replace. OSU provided all patients with a tablet which helped with family contact but wasn’t a successful substitute for in-person mentoring.

“The pandemic has created one more barrier for people to overcome who are already feeling overwhelmed,” says Nowell. “I just want to do anything I can to make myself a conduit for people for information about anything to do with spinal cord injury.”

Nowell has an email distribution list of more than 150 people in Ohio, with which he shares information about upcoming events, equipment, tips, and SCI research. He believes his greatest success and most rewarding accomplishment is that ten of his former peers have become mentors.

“No two people are the same, and no two injuries are the same. It is a very individual journey,” says Nowell. “As a mentor, you learn about other people’s experiences. I pass on what I learn, and it becomes exponentially beneficial information to share with others. That helps all of us.”

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

This project was supported, in part, by grant number 90PRRC0002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.