“When I’m in Michigan Stadium, I feel like I’m a part of a huge family,” Brock Mealer, 25, says.“For three hours every Saturday, life’s worries go on hold.” For Brock, who’s father and family friend passed away two years ago, going to Michigan Stadium to watch his brother play football is bittersweet.
“When I’m in Michigan stadium, I’m taken back to a time before the accident, and I feel like my Dad and Hollis are right there cheering with me.” Two years ago, Brock and his family were on their way to church on Christmas Eve when a 92-year-old man ran a stop sign and hit the car in which he and his family were traveling. Brock’s father, David Mealer, and his brother’s girlfriend, Hollis Richer, were killed in the accident. Brock sustained an injury to his spinal cord which causes him to be paralyzed from the waist down. When he goes to Michigan Stadium now, thoughts of his father and Hollis are never far.
In the days and months after the accident, Brock faced not only a difficult grieving process, but also a rehabilitation process that was both mentally and physically grueling. With life as he had known it forever changed, he says, “I had to learn everything all over. I couldn’t sit up, and I was in pain all the time.” He added, “one of the hardest things to get used to was needing to rely on someone else for life’s most basic tasks. I had always been so independent.”
During his rehabilitation process at the University of Michigan Hospital, Brock met Ann Arbor CIL staff member Tom Hoatlin, who also has a spinal cord injury. Tom directs the CIL’s Spinal Cord Injury Support program, which connects patients with new spinal cord injuries with peer mentors who have had similar injuries for several years. The program is designed to provide training in adjusting to life with a spinal cord injury as well as emotional support during a significant life transition process.
Brock says, “I remember Tom’s coming into my hospital room just to ask me about me. No one else at the hospital did that. Meeting Tom and getting to know him as a person meant a lot to me.” Brock added, “at a time when I didn’t know what life would look like after the hospital, Tom and the other peer mentors were an important example to me. They were guys with the same injuries, all living independent, full, and meaningful lives. They showed me that getting out there and living again was possible.”
“Everyone at the hospital was giving me advice and telling me that things would be okay, but it was more meaningful coming from Tom and the other [CIL] peer mentors. They’d lived it. They’d been through it.” After three months in the hospital, Brock took on the difficult task of returning home and learning how to live a normal life again. At the time of the accident Brock had been about to graduate from the Ohio State University, and he was working in the construction industry. “Suddenly, I didn’t know how and when I was going to be able to finish college, or how I was going to be able to go back to work. It was scary.” Brock finished his undergraduate degree and is now working on a master’s degree at the Ohio State University in public affairs. He says, “I want to get involved and change things for people with disabilities, and things related to driving and insurance. I want to use my experiences to make things better for other people.”
Brock is still training weekly on UM’s Lokomat, a machine which helps him put weight on his legs and gradually rehabilitate his central nervous system. Although unsure of whether he’ll be able to walk again, Brock says, “I’m starting to see some progress. I’m starting to be able to put weight on my legs, and it’s amazing to feel.”
“Going through something like this,” Brock added, “you realize how human you are. It changes your perspective on life. I’d always felt invincible before. I never expected something like this to happen to me. I appreciate life very differently now.”