On March 6, 2011, Ryan DeRoche went flying over the handlebars of his mountain bike during a ride in Girona, Spain. He cracked his neck and became paralyzed from the chest down.
On the same date in 2015, more than 3,600 miles away while driving in Kingston, N.H., Katie Tuscano was rear-ended by a six-ton truck. She injured her spinal cord in the same place DeRoche had four years earlier.
The two Bay State natives were brought together by a ground-breaking peer mentorship program that started in Boston and has become a model for other hospitals nationwide as it this year celebrates its 25th anniversary.
“I remember that I was scared; I didn’t know much about having a spinal cord injury or what was to come,” Tuscano said. “I was scared, and Ryan just made it so easy to talk to him. It was like I had known him forever. He was just there for me.”
The peer mentorship program is set up through the Greater Boston Chapter of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association and operates out of Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown. DeRoche served as Tuscano’s peer mentor, coaching her on how to cope with the life-shattering experience she had endured.
“I started doing it because I had mentors when I was in the hospital and it pushed me further to get me motivated and keep pushing,” DeRoche, 35, said.
“Doctors and therapists will tell you things, but they’re not in the wheelchair, they’re not in this position, they never have been. When you see someone else in a wheelchair, whether they are the same injury or not, it’s huge.”
DeRoche and Tuscano, 31, started meeting a few weeks after Tuscano came to Spaulding and still stay in touch frequently through social media. In addition to having their accidents on the same date, they also share a Nov. 12 birthday four years apart.
“The whole basis for peer mentoring is that we learn best from someone like us,” said Beth Weaver, the program’s executive director. “This is a trick that I learned, this is how I went back to school, this is how I can have a relationship now that I am paralyzed.”
Dan Meninger, who directs the spinal cord injury program at Spaulding, said other hospitals often reach out to learn more about how their program works.
“We love to be able to share and learn from other hospitals and organizations that are doing similar work and having success with it,” Meninger said. “It’s been an invaluable resource.”
DeRoche is living in Melrose with his service dog, a black lab named Oliver. He is able to take a few steps, tie his shoes, dress himself, and regain much of his independence.
Tuscano, who is building a house in Stoneham, said her happiest moment was moving her arms again so she could hug her 8-year-old goddaughter. She was also able to attend a “hike and bike” event, organized in part by DeRoche, through a state forest in Andover.
“That day,” she said, choking up, “was the first day that I didn’t feel like I was in a wheelchair.”