My name is Steve Kearley, and I’m a Patient Advocate at 180 Medical. Over 30 years ago, I sustained a severe spinal cord injury in a car accident that changed my life. Sports have always been important to me, and after my accident, I discovered the sport of wheelchair rugby.
Recently, I had an incredible opportunity to take a journey that led me all the way to Nepal to share the power of wheelchair rugby and adaptive sports with other quadriplegics.
The Opportunity to Journey to Nepal
My journey all began with meeting Dr. Raju Dhakal of Nepal’s Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Center (SIRC). He came to the USA earlier this year to attend the United States Wheelchair Rugby Association‘s National Championships. As the USA Low Point Head Coach, I got to meet and talk with him after the games.
During his visit, he got a chance to experience how quadriplegics live here in the United States, and he told me about the experiences of people who have spinal cord injuries in Nepal. Paraplegics are still able to remain pretty active there, due to having more mobility and sensation in their arms and upper body, and some participate in wheelchair basketball. However, he told me that many quadriplegics in Nepal go through rehab but eventually end up passing away sooner than normal because they have little to live for after their injury.
I was invited as a delegate to go to Nepal, along with a therapist and the head of adaptive sports at Tirr Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Hospital as part of the global sports mentoring program with the U.S. State Department. Our focus is to help people with disabilities get active in sports and in their communities.
Adaptive sports for people with disabilities are important for so many reasons. On top of being a great physical outlet and an avenue for exercise and improved health, being a part of a sports team can foster new friendships and a sense of purpose. So when the opportunity arose for me to visit Nepal, I saw it as an exciting adventure I couldn’t pass up. Little did I know that this trip would be such a profound experience.
My Experience of Bringing Wheelchair Rugby to Nepal
Arriving in Nepal and figuring out how to get around was definitely a little bit of a culture shock for me at first. But I was grateful to be there.
While I was in Nepal, the Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Center had 67 patients with spinal cord injuries. Getting to meet them and share the sport of wheelchair rugby with them was an absolutely amazing experience.
We didn’t have a big gymnasium or anything like that, but we made a makeshift court with a large room at the facility. Gathered all around that court were patients, doctors, nurses, and family members. The whole room was absolutely packed with people wanting to see what this new sport was.
And when the quads finally got out there to play, it choked me up, because I knew this was something that was really going to help them. Just seeing how happy they were as they played and rammed into each other’s chairs with big smiles was really an indescribable feeling for me.
Dr. Raju told me that he had never seen so many smiles from his patients before, especially his quadriplegic patients, because finally, there was something for them. Before, they really didn’t have anything like that. Now, they’ve got this new recreational outlet that helps promote better physical and emotional health post-injury. They’ve also got a new way to collaborate and get to know different people who are going through the same types of challenges and experiences.
What’s Next: Building a Brighter Future for Quadriplegics in Nepal
During that trip, I was lucky to make many friendships. I’ve stayed in touch with all the quadriplegic patients I met during my time in Nepal, and I made a commitment to them. I want to assist Nepal and the Spinal Cord Rehabilitation Center in establishing its first wheelchair rugby team.
Right now, I’m in the process of acquiring sports wheelchairs for wheelchair rugby. I’m also planning on creating a wheelchair rugby camp to teach the sport, foster teamwork, and continue to be part of that growth in Nepal.
It’s going to be a big challenge, but after seeing those patients’ happy faces and smiles, I don’t care how big that challenge is. It’s going to happen one way or another.
My Takeaway From My Trip
I love doing what I do here as a Patient Advocate with 180 Medical. But being able to help others in another country in a different way really changed my perspective.
My experience reminded me of the privileges we often take for granted in the United States, such as accessibility. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we have lots of required wheelchair-friendly infrastructure, such as ramps, wheelchair-accessible restrooms, and specialized parking spaces.
Nepal doesn’t have an equivalent law, and the terrain there is quite mountainous and hilly, so I often required assistance from other people just to get around.
It is perhaps one of the poorest places I’ve ever traveled to, but the people there are some of the kindest, friendliest folks you could ever meet. They’re welcoming, and they’re strong, and they really don’t seem to sweat the small things. Nepal is truly a beautiful place, too.
I think we can all be advocates in our own ways, and it doesn’t have to mean being a Patient Advocate. We can be life advocates. Any time we have a chance to empower someone who doesn’t feel empowered or just give some happiness to someone, we should take that opportunity and do it.
We can all get wrapped up in our day-to-day lives pretty easily, and we can start to overlook the simple things. But this trip was a good reminder that those simple things, like bringing a smile to someone’s face or giving them a hand, are what really matters in life. It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it.