Eric Kolar: Showcasing Life After Spinal Cord Injury

Anyone who would question the capabilities of someone with a spinal cord injury should get to know Eric Kolar.

June marked the 20th anniversary of the diving accident that left Kolar, then a teenager, with a C6-7 spinal cord injury (SCI) and quadriplegia.

He remembers how he envisioned his future back then.

"I thought, "I'm going to be stuck behind a computer for the rest of my life,'" he says.

He hopes the full and well-rounded life he's actually living offers hope to others with SCI.

Eric and his trusty sidekick, Smuckers.

A Helping Hand

Despite his diagnosis, Kolar regained nearly all of the dexterity in his fingers and has full upper-body function.

He puts that strength to good use as a branch manager for UroMed, a leading provider of urological supplies based in Suwanee, Ga.

Kolar is also one of the main contributors to UroMed's Life After Spinal Cord Injury (LASCI) online resource, where consumers with SCI can ask questions and hear from peers. Kolar contributes his own experiences and ideas. He's part confidant, part we're-in-this-together comrade.

Kolar came to work for UroMed, and by extension LASCI, by design, but there were hints of that destiny along the way.

While undergoing treatment post injury at Atlanta's famous Shepherd Center, Kolar met Bert Burns, a recreational therapist.

Burns, a highly successful Paralympian with quadriplegia, quickly became a role model for the teenager.

"Just seeing what he was able to do and seeing some of the other patients -- I got to the point where I was helping them do things," Kolar says. "Just little things, like helping them put the cuff on that holds their fork. I began wanting to be like Bert. I liked to help people, and that's what got me to what I'm doing now."

Kolar was Burns's final Shepherd Center patient. By the time Kolar graduated high school, Burns had founded UroMed - and Kolar applied for a job. He wasn't hired due to his lack of experience, so Kolar studied at Columbus State University to become a recreational therapist. When the school ended its recreational therapy program, Kolar switched gears and became a medical assistant, earning his national certification.

Eventually, Kolar went back to UroMed and again asked for a job.

Today, he is the branch manager in Richmond, Va. - a position that is as much about listening to customers as it is about shipping supplies.

Warehouse inventory is easily accessible.

A One-Man Branch

"I provide service for about 500 patients on a monthly basis," Kolar says. "But it's not just 'Do you need your order?' You deal with patients that have catheter changes, changes in insurance, all kinds of different products other than catheters. I do my best to provide what they need and what's going to work best for them. Being that I already use some of these products, I kind of have an upper hand."

Kolar says many customers don't initially realize he's a wheelchair user himself. When they find out, the conversations really open up.

"A lot of them are newly injured, and the questions just start coming," he explains.

Kolar runs the Richmond office - approximately 4,000 square feet - solo. Daily duties include customer service, shipping and receiving, keeping the office clean.

He also runs the warehouse, which means restocking it.

"I've made adjustments in the warehouse," he says, referring to shelves that have been lowered. "But I do all the shipping and receiving for Virginia Medicaid, and that entails all of the receiving coming in. UPS doesn't put everything on the shelves for me."

Creativity at work: A spare door becomes a ramp.

In Kolar's warehouse, a spare door serves as a ramp for processing boxes of products. Kolar stacks boxes in his lap and rolls to the front of the office to leave them for pickup.

And he jokes about keeping the office "as clean or cleaner than my own apartment. Nobody else is going to come in and clean the toilet and the floors and the windows. I take a lot of pride in this facility."

His one-man-crew routine shows, Kolar adds, "that (people with SCI) can get out there and still be in the workforce. They can still do things. A lot of people when they're first injured, they're totally distraught. It's a huge change, especially when a person has lived a good portion of their life being able bodied."

Building an Online Community

LASCI highlights what people with SCI can do. Kolar has chatted with LASCI visitors on topics ranging from relationships to sports to perfecting strategies for tasks such as getting dressed or using public restrooms.

While LASCI aims to be a resource for all, Kolar has noticed many visitors are newly injured.

"A lot of times, they're in the hospital, they have their surgery, they get a little bit better, and they get sent home," he says. "They don't know what to do. They don't know people in wheelchairs, they don't see people in wheelchairs, so they're basically the only person in a wheelchair in their community. They feel really outcast."

Even SCI patients who spend time in a rehab facility can feel adrift once they're discharged.

"They don't know how to get back into society because they're nervous," Kolar says. "They think everybody's going to stare at them, which they kind of do."

LASCI - with more than 9,400 Facebook friends who actively chime in with their own advice - seeks to be a safe haven where any topic can be discussed, and where no question is too inconsequential. Wondering about a new product you've heard of? Searching for universities that provide great support to kids with disabilities? Need to vent to people who understand? Check out LASCI.

"We like to get their positivity back up, let them know that they can still easily be members of society," Kolar says. "They're not different than anybody else."

Despite his active life - in his spare time, he competes on the car audio circuit with his 2004 Volvo V70 wagon sporting blacked-out windows and black rims - Kolar says he's an "average guy," which he thinks is helpful when chatting with his customers and LASCI friends.

"When they see somebody like myself, they can relate a lot easier and feel a little more comfortable," he says.

And that's exactly the point Kolar wants to make.

"We know; we've been there," he says. "If we can provide our personal life experiences to help somebody out, that's what it's all about."

Coming in Part 2: One man's quest for the perfect car audio system.

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.