People Making a Difference: Andrew Skinner and Triumph Foundation

By Chris Rohan, Former publisher of Disabled Dealer Magazine

Christmas, 2004 was supposed to be the pinnacle celebration to an exceptional year for Andrew Skinner. That year, he had met Kirsten, the girl of his dreams, graduated with his BS in Business, and landed a well-paying job. Life was good. But... Instead of celebrating around the sparkling lights of an eight-foot, Fraser Fir decked out in holiday delights, Andrew lie flat on his back unable to move from the neck down.

Andrew and Kristen of the Triumph Foundation

Andrew calls to mind the fateful day that changed his life. "My family, Kirsten and I were celebrating Thanksgiving at our family cabin in Lake Arrowhead. The ground was covered in a blanket of fresh powder-snow, so we spent the week prior to our turkey feast playing in the snow, sledding, building snowmen and snowboarding. It was a perfect holiday and when we finally broke bread, said Grace, and shared our sumptuous meal, we were all grateful for our lives and each other. The next day, while I was snowboarding in front of the cabin, I fell. In an instant, my perfect world was turned upside-down."

Kirsten was right behind Andrew when he fell and she has been at his side ever since. She recalls that day and how frightened she was. "Initially I was not concerned; the fall seemed minor. But when I heard his voice, I knew something was terribly wrong."

Although Andrew's fall did not appear to be hard, it was damaging. Andrew broke the 4th, 5th, and 6th cervical vertebra in his neck and suffered a spinal cord injury. Instantly, he was completely paralyzed from the neck down. Luckily, Andrew's spine was not severed. Not long after the accident, Andrew began to gain movement in his upper body. His diagnosis changed from complete quadriplegic to incomplete quadriplegic. Kristen was there to share the moment. "It was an extremely difficult time. I was dealing with the emotional aftermath of the accident. I wanted to be there for Andrew, except they only let family members visit a patient in ICU. I was only a girlfriend. I was frustrated and worried, but my constant presence at the hospital quickly earned me family privileges. At last I was able to take my place at Andrew's bedside. Then after just a few weeks, I got the best gift that Andrew could have ever given me. He moved his arms just enough to wrap them around me. That hug remains unsurpassed. The feeling was overwhelming and when I left his sight I cried. I knew we had a long road ahead of us, but I also knew we were on our way."

The road to recovery wasn't an easy one for Andrew. "When I was first hurt, even with Kirsten at my side, I did not think marriage, family or a real career were possible for someone in a wheelchair. I was confused and scared but I wasn't alone. My friends, family and Kirsten rallied around me and their support was incredible. What really helped me though, were peer mentors like Bobby Rohan and Anthony Orifice. They had been down this road. They were realistic about my injury and the challenges I would face. They pulled no punches, but they also showed me that life goes on. The injury, they swore, was just a speed bump; it might slow me down but it could only stop me if I let it."

Triumph Foundation. Andrew with support.

The injury did not slow Andrew down for long. He spent the next three months in the hospital, regaining as much strength as he could. By the time he was discharged from the hospital he started to get return of movement in his biceps, shoulders and wrist extensors.  He eventually learned how to propel himself in a manual wheelchair, and with the use of adaptive equipment he learned how to feed himself, brush his own teeth, and to write with a pen. His goal was to maximize his return of function. "I began exercising and training from home to be the best me I could be and maximize my recovery. I tried to do as much as I possibly could do for myself. It was often hard for others to watch me struggle to do simple tasks, but that was the only way to learn."

At present, Andrew still uses a manual wheelchair for mobility but he has gained enough use of his upper body to function more independently. "Since my injury, I have trained every day and I have grown tremendously. I have come so far from where I started the day I got hurt. I'm miles from where I was when I got discharged from the hospital, and even from where I was a month ago, a week ago or even a day ago. I am getting better every day. I am constantly learning new ways to perform daily tasks that I've struggled with in the past, and I am getting closer to my ultimate goal of being completely independent."

2011 and Andrew's spirit remains undaunted and he continues to maximize his potential in all areas of his life. He has returned to work, married Kirsten and fathered a beautiful daughter named Betty. "Once I began my recovery, I realized the only thing that could limit me from living a full, productive life was my attitude. Kirsten was my rock. She lifted me up when I needed support and kicked me in the butt when I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself. The injury never created any doubt about our relationship. In fact, the injury really solidified most of my relationships. Any gaps that existed were closed. Something like this forces a person to communicate more clearly. Being so exposed physically, psychologically and emotionally causes you to be honest about your strengths, fears and challenges. And that creates a bond that cannot be equaled!" 

Kirsten agrees about the importance of communication. "It is tough to go through a life-changing event like spinal cord injury. Andrew would go to physical therapy, recreational therapy and group therapy to learn how to manage his disability. I tried to accompany him the majority of the time so I could learn too. The most interesting sessions for me were the informational meetings usually lead by a nurse. These meetings/classes opened my eyes. I learned how to take care of Andrew's needs so I could help when he was discharged and came home. The nurses taught me about bowel/bladder care, pressure sores, nutrition, the importance of scheduling and even about sexual activity. Those meetings made me realize that knowledge and communication were going to be the foundation of overcoming this obstacle in our life."


Andrew and Kristen Award from Triumph Foundation

Kirsten remembers how hard those first months home from the hospital were. "A few weeks before Andrew was released from the hospital, I moved in with his family in Santa Clarita. Andrew has an amazing family and they converted the garage into an accessible room for us to live in. It all happened so fast and in just three months post injury, Andrew was coming home. It was time to put our newly acquired skills to the test."

"The transition was not easy," Kirsten recalls. "When you are in the hospital, everything is very accommodating and there are so many qualified people to assist you. When you are at home, you need to figure out a new way to do everything. For example, how do you help someone get dressed in the morning? What is the best way to transfer from the bed to the wheelchair when the bed height is not adjustable? Bottom line is that you learn; and you get better at doing things every day. You just cannot give up."

And they never have; giving up is not in their vocabulary. Today Andrew and Kirsten relish their current life together but they have not forgotten the tremendous obstacles they faced. They understand what it takes to triumph over a life-altering injury and they want to help other newly injured experience the same success. This desire to help others was the impetus for starting the Triumph Foundation. 

The Triumph Foundation was born in August 2008. Triumph supports the newly injured and their families by providing information about assistance programs and organizations. They partner with individuals as educators, advocates and mentors. One of Triumph's biggest projects is giving care baskets to newly injured individuals. These baskets are presented to newly injured SCI patients at various hospitals to not only lift spirits but also raise awareness and hopefully ease their transition into their new life. The baskets are full of resources like equipment catalogs, information on various recreational, educational and government programs. The baskets also include goodies that make hospital life a little sweeter. The extent of the content depends on the donations and support Triumph gets.

Women in wheelchairs enjoy a tropical beach day.

Andrew confirms, "When possible we include homemade goodies to provide a sense of holiday cheer. We also try to include a present. The more we can get donated, the more we can give, and the more impactful the basket is. We've been able to give MP3 player, gift cards, t-shirts, etc.  The baskets are really designed to cheer new injuries up and help them realize they are not alone. We provide them with the resources they need to Triumph over their injury and have a full productive life. I spent Christmas in the hospital and I know how hard it is. The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy but when you're flat on your back, struggling to come to terms with a catastrophic injury, the holidays can be hard. Triumph wants to make it easier!"

This December Triumph continues their "Care Basket" mission. Their goal is to bring holiday cheer to newly injured individuals throughout the Los Angeles County area. "We provide baskets all year but we really amp up our efforts at Christmas to make sure we can provide every new injury a 'Season of Support.' We started at Northridge Hospital, because I rehabbed there and it was where I spent my first Christmas as a person with SCI. I know I would not have made it without the amazing support and information I received from mentors. Information is the key and knowing you're not alone makes the road to recovery a lot easier." 

This year Triumph will be visiting patients at Northridge, Rancho Los Amigos, Casa Colina, Long Beach Memorial and Long Beach VA: Wounded Warriors. They need your support! Make a real gift by getting involved! Contact Triumph and help. http://triumph-foundation.org/
Become a Holiday Elf & Help People Triumph!

How to Get Involved
1. Contact Triumph and provide your email address.
2. Donate Gift Cards, Cash or new, unwrapped Presents.
3. Donate homemade goodies, prepackage treats, popcorn candies, treats, etc.
4. Volunteer to build the baskets
5. Injured yourself? Come be a mentor and help distribute packages.

YOU CAN HELP!!

Eat for a Cause
To support the Christmas Baskets, Triumph will be holding their annual EAT FOR A CAUSE night
on Wednesday, December 4 at the Route 66 Classic Grill restaurant located at 18730 Soledad Canyon Road; Canyon Country, CA 91351.

Christmas Goodies
Triumph is now gathering goodies for their famous care baskets. For those who want
to get a head start:

1. Buy the on sale Halloween candy at grocery stores
2. If you have a talent for knitting or sewing get your needles started
3. If you find great gift items, start collecting
4. If you have any connections with a corporate sponsor send them to Andrew and remind them that this is a really, really a great cause!!

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