'They understand': Alberta women with spinal cord injuries connect during the pandemic
EDMONTON -- The COVID-19 pandemic has left many people feeling isolated but not a group of Alberta women, for whom it's had the opposite effect.
They're nicknamed 'The Alberta Wheel Girls' and they've been meeting virtually once a week since April.
"I believe it certainly helped with the establishment of the group just because people were home, they were looking for people to talk to," said Brandice Lorch, client services coordinator with Spinal Cord Injury Alberta.
When COVID-19 restrictions were high, Lorch reached out to a number of clients of Spinal Cord Injury Alberta to see if they needed any support.
"I was talking to a young girl down in Lethbridge and I asked her if she'd like to be paired with another female in a wheelchair, and she said she'd never actually talked to another female in a wheelchair," Lorch recalled.
That conversation prompted her to create a province-wide group chat that has only grown since it's inception.
"On the Instagram chat we're surpassing 35 members."
The women meet once a week on Zoom and since COVID-19 restrictions have eased, some have arranged physically distanced outdoor gatherings, including meet-ups in parks, camping and hand-cycling ventures.
'DEEPER CONVERSATIONS THAN MOST PEOPLE WOULD THINK'
MacEwan University student Natasha Mackinley says no topic is out of bounds for The Wheel Girls.
"It ranges from getting properly fitted wheelchairs to how to deal with AADL (Alberta Aids to Daily Living), to dealing with urinary tract infections to what works for sex. It ranges through everything... We had a conversation two weeks ago about how we mop our floors."
The 26-year-old was paralyzed from the waist down eight years ago in a crash on Highway 16.
Since then, she's met a few female friends with spinal cord injuries but says this group offers a whole new level of support.
"It's kind of cool that we have some that are not even a year paralyzed and we have some that have been paralyzed the majority of their life... We can still bounce ideas off of each other and it's not necessarily one group knows better than the other."
FEMALES MAKE UP THE MINORITY OF SPINAL CORD INJURIES
According to 2019 statistics, women make up only 21 per cent of those with spinal cord injuries; 79 per cent are men.
Margaret Conquest — who has been paralyzed nearly 30 years — says that's part of the reason, prior to this, she hadn't met many women friends who share her limitations.
"I have lots of good friends. I love my husband, I love my neighbour and my neighbour's kids but none of them know uniquely know what it is like to have a spinal cord injury and to experience day-to-day life with a spinal cord injury."
Conquest says every week, she gets excited for the Tuesday morning Zoom meeting and if she has to miss it, she's disappointed.
"It doesn't even have to be necessarily about disability first," she told CTV News Edmonton.
"It's how your disability flavours your everyday life and how this kind of contact with other people in a similar circumstance — not the same, similar — can bring quality of life and value to your everyday experience of life."