Tony’s story – Returning to work after sustaining an SCI

When Tony Mangan was diagnosed with a benign spinal tumour he never dreamt that it would leave him permanently paralysed from the waist down. The 45 year old was informed by doctors that the tumour was operable and he could expect a three month recovery period, after which he would be up and about once again.

“My operation was scheduled for August 2007. When I woke up after the surgery I could wriggle my toes and everybody was in a positive frame of mind. I was told the operation was a success and within a few weeks I would regain full feeling in my legs. I just had to wait for the bruising and swelling to go down,” said Tony.

Unfortunately, months went by and there was no sign of any improvement. It slowly became clear to Tony that he would never walk again. He was transferred to the National Rehabilitation Centre in October 2007.

“While I was at the NRH my colleagues and bosses at Trulife visited me and they said they had a position for me that would facilitate my disability. It was also made clear that I could return to work on a part time basis.”

Tony had worked as production engineer at the international manufacturing company for six years and was keen to stay at Trulife but he knew that it would be impossible to maintain that position in a wheelchair.

“Every Christmas the company hosts a draw with prizes for its staff and it’s a very relaxed affair. I decided that would be a good opportunity to meet my colleagues and bosses on site. I had a spasm attack which was a bit embarrassing but apart from that it was a good day and the ice was broken. While I was there, however, I noticed access points that just wouldn’t work for someone in a wheelchair. Also, my office was on the first floor and there was no way that I could get to it. Thankfully, that was one hurdle that I could cross quickly and easily as my boss very kindly offered me his office on the ground floor.”

With Tony keen to get back to work as quickly as possible, the NRH Vocational Team met with him and made an assessment of his requirements.

According to Brian Miller, a member of the team, it is imperative that patients with jobs move swiftly to re-enter the workforce because when there are delays, jobs can sometimes be lost. It is also important to begin on a part time basis where possible as it takes time to build up stamina.

Brian explained: “We carried out a Valtar assessment and visited Tony’s workplace. After that we met with his employers and recommended changes to increase accessibility throughout the building. We also contacted Fás and set up a process whereby Trulife could apply for the Workplace Equipment Adaptation Scheme which pays up to €17,000 to employers. Trulife received the grant.”

Catherine Logan was another member on the Vocational Team. She said: “We explored Tony’s strengths and weaknesses in relation to returning to work. Following the work site visits one of the recommendations made was to adapt the bathroom facilities and once this was done it was possible to initiate the workplace grant application.”

The work site visits were an important part of the process as the team also got an opportunity to see the environmental challenges. It also allowed them to see the on-site support that was available to Tony and the willingness to facilitate his return and make the necessary adaptations.

According to Catherine, the most important factor in the success of Tony’s return to work was his own ambition and determination.

“His strengths were evident but he was still in the process of coming to terms with the impact of his injury, trying to make the most of his physical and functional gains and he had issues with his living accommodation as well as concerns around his prospective working environment. Driving again was another important step for Tony.”

The role of the vocational team in helping people with SCIs return to work is multifold: it is a team of people from different disciplines and agencies that work to understand the impact of the injury; identify strengths and weaknesses; explore the demands of the job; source grants and other entitlements; and devise solutions to facilitate the return to work.

Catherine and Brian are also keen to promote the advantages that come when a person returns to work.

“It helps the person and their family improve their social integration and inclusion, it provides greater access to social and leisure pursuits, and it gives the person a sense of achievement, empowerment and contribution.

The vocational team also organise workshop days where a panel of people with spinal cord injuries talk about their experiences returning to work. This helps others who are in the process of that journey.

According to Tony, one of the most valuable things the Vocational Team did for him was their support when applying for his application for exemption for part time return to work. This meant that he could work 20 hours per week without this grant pay income tax on both their illness benefit and part time income.

Brian says there is a lot of red tape involved in applying for grants and gaining exemptions. “Apart from the quagmire of red tape, many people are, understandably, unaware of their entitlements. Returning to work is such a vital part of a person’s independence and social outlet. Without the support of the Vocational Team patients run the risk of being unable to cross that initial hurdle.”

Tony returned to work in March 2008 after completing six months at the NRH. Around this time he also moved into the Royal Hospital in Donnybrook.

“There was a period of time between my accident and returning to work where I began to wonder been told by numerous people that my wheelchair use. I couldn’t sell it because it had negative equity and getting a mortgage as a part time employee to buy another house was impossible.”

Finally, Tony’s social worker found him a place on the Phoenix Ward at the Royal Hospital where he remained for a further six months. From there he travelled to Tallaght two days a week where he worked at Trulife. A manager at the Royal Hospital took a keen interest in Tony’s plight. After much research, he discovered a stair lift in place, the house was easily adapted and Tony could return home. He also helped Tony source a battery assisted hand bike so that he could pursue his love of the outdoors and increase his fitness levels.

“I joined a cycling club in Dublin called No Sweat and we go for long cycles on Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons. looking really good. My job provides me while the cycling helps my mind and body stay healthy.”

Although Tony says he has found his niche in Trulife and is enjoying making a valuable contribution to the company. It
was not always this way. When he initially returned he moved away from production and engineering as he couldn’t get close enough to the machines because of his wheelchair.“

“I struggled to find a meaningful role for the first two years. Finally, I took on the role of health and safety officer and I also work
in quality. Now I’ve found a niche position that I know is meaningful. That was really important to me.”