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Peer coach keeps young patients rolling

BY JENNIFER GOLSON
Star-Ledger Staff
Friday, January 17, 2003

Scott Chesney was making his rounds at the Children's Specialized Hospital in Mountainside, visiting teenagers in wheelchairs, when he rolled into Room 115 and noticed the photos surrounding John Nolasco's bed.

There was the group shot of the Ridgefield High School football team on which John, 16, played tight end until he suffered a paralyzing neck injury.

But another picture got them talking.

"I was drawn to John in the very beginning," said Chesney, 32, of Verona. "He had a picture of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders."

Chesney said he uses those common connections -- girls, sports, life -- to build a rapport with patients at the pediatric rehabilitation facility. He is a peer coach, a position the hospital created in September.

It is Chesney's responsibility to talk patients through their struggles and the logistics of having a physical disability.

In a sea of medical professionals, Chesney is the one most suited for the position, hospital officials say. His wheels have been his legs for nearly 17 years, since a blood vessel burst in his spinal cord when he was a 15-year-old basketball player.

When hospital officials learned about him last year, Chesney had already spent years traveling around the world, working as a motivational speaker and as a voluntary peer coach.

Occasionally, a volunteer would visit patients at the Mountainside hospital, but the facility did not have a peer coach program until September, Michael Dribbon, associate vice president of rehabilitation services, said.

The hospital wanted to bring someone on board to develop a program, Dribbon said. "He has a true understanding of what adolescents face," he said of Chesney.

Hospital officials realized the need to bring in an individual who had experienced the same feelings the patients were experiencing -- the confusion, frustration and other emotional distress of becoming physically challenged. They also wanted someone who could help reintegrate patients into their communities and schools.

Now they are hoping Chesney will zero in on current and former patients they can train to become peer coaches, either as volunteers or as staff members, Dribbon said.

Talking with a peer coach has had an impact on the rest of the treatment some of the patients receive, physical therapist Jaime Eilbacher said.

"A lot of the kids do want to do the physical aspect," Eilbacher said of their treatment. "They don't know why or they don't know how it's going to help them."

The peer coach is someone to whom children relate, said Christine Petrick, a psychologist with the hospital.

"They just really don't connect with me," Petrick said. "There's so many kids who kind of pass through without having someone that they trusted."

They look at Chesney and say, "He really knows where I'm coming from," Petrick said. "He's not going to psychoanalyze me."

The interaction is not all clinical, as Chesney wheels around the halls of the hospital, high-fiving the children as they wheel past or challenging them to a race.

Nolasco's mother, Lydia Ruiz, said she noticed how easily Chesney communicated with the young men in Room 115. She asked her son's doctor to make room in her son's schedule for him to chat with Chesney.

"They could be talking about girls or sports and then next they're talking about frustrating moments they've experienced," Ruiz said.

Shams Murphy, 14, a ninth- grader at Morristown High School, has been in a wheelchair for 10 1/2 years. He had spinal meningitis when he was a toddler, but he's been at the children's hospital to build up his strength after surgery for a urinary tract infection.

During their first meeting, Shams said he saw Chesney wheel into the room: "I was already like, 'He's going to be cool.'"

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