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Overcoming a Spinal Cord Injury Through Rehabilitation and Psychology

John (name changed), a funny, pleasant, 60-something-year-old man, had fallen and experienced a serious spinal cord injury. John was paralyzed from the neck down. He and his family were heartbroken at his injuries.

Rehabilitation psychologist Dr. Shayna Nussbaum recalls John’s story and the role that psychology played in getting John back to his normal life. But Dr. Nussbaum (who prefers Shayna to Doctor) emphasizes the importance of a team-based approach.

When it comes to physical rehabilitation, psychologists are not the main focus of treatment. The rehabilitation team, with patients and their families front and center, work together to help patients achieve their goals. Nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, social workers, personal support workers, physicians, and other healthcare and hospital staff are imperative to recoveries.

Shayna began her training with the goal of becoming a Clinical Neuropsychologist. She already knew that she valued working in mental health, having worked at an addictions program before graduate school.

“I have a passion for figuring things out and enjoyed the puzzles that neuropsychology offered. Why do people struggle with cognitive problems and how can an accurate diagnosis provide the best care plan possible?”

Shayna did not, however, know that rehabilitation psychology existed when she started training. She worked in hospital-based rehabilitation facilities providing neuropsychological assessments to people with stroke, brain, orthopaedic, and spinal cord injury.

How a Spinal Cord Injury Led to Hope

John’s spinal cord injury disrupted every aspect of his everyday life. The experience was so taxing that John disclosed having thoughts of trying to end his life.

John kept on a brave face for his wife and children. Despite his fears, he worked hard during the assessment. But more importantly, he worked hard throughout his inpatient rehabilitation in physiotherapy and occupational therapy. His wife visited him for hours every day. The couple was supportive and kind to the patients and staff in the rehabilitation unit.

One day, with the assessment long finished, the couple pulled Shayna aside in the hallway to discuss John’s progress. John offered that today in physiotherapy, he had taken his first steps since the accident. He was grateful for all the care that the rehabilitation team had invested. The team, in turn, was grateful for his hard work. Shayna was especially moved knowing how emotionally and physically difficult it was for him to cope with his injury.

With tears in her eyes, Shayna congratulated the couple. John’s hard work paid off, and she made sure to emphasize how important his wife’s support was as well.


During her work in rehabilitation facilities, Shayna came to appreciate how important mental health, motivation, and finding hope are for people struggling with injuries and other physical health issues. Seeing John and other patients struggle, find hope, work hard, and recover was awe-inspiring.

Journeys such as John’s gave Shayna perspective on the resiliency of the human mind, body, and spirit in the face of adversity. The importance of a support network was clear. She watched patients with loving families grow and thrive despite severe physical health problems.

Rehabilitation Psychologists help people with pain face the fear of injury but also help them learn to live life again. Shayna’s work with patients like John provided perspective and hope to help others who were struggling with debilitating injuries. If John, who had almost no movement below his neck and considered ending his life, could walk again, certainly others could recover and find meaning even if their situation seemed hopeless when they first met.

spinal cord injury psychologist

Dr. Shayna Nussbaum received her Ph.D. in Adult Clinical Psychology at the University of Windsor. She completed her Honours B.Sc. in Psychology at York University and completed her Masters of Arts in Adult Clinical Psychology at the University of Windsor.  

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