Objectives. Most previous research on rehabilitation of patients after spinal cord injuries has dealt with the attainment of outcomes valued by staff members or with the prediction of successful outcomes based on sociodemographic characteristics of patients. This study examined the rehabilitation process from the insider’s perspective of an individual patient to determine his view of important adaptive problems and to examine how these problems were addressed.

Methods. Ethnographic methods were used for fine-grained documentation of the experiences of one 30-year-old man with spinal cord injury. Daily interviews were conducted with this patient during his 116 days of inpatient rehabilitation. An interdisciplinary research team analyzed the data with the constant comparative method to identify a number of recurring themes.

Results. Findings indicate that in addition to learning how to function in the local world of the rehabilitation hospital, the patient also learned a new identity as a person with a long-term disability.

Discussion. A central theme was the patient’s ongoing attempt to figure out how his future was related to his life before the injury and how he could use previous competencies in adapting to disability. Staff members seemed so intent on teaching the patients new skills that they often discounted the significance of his past experience and failed to engage in helping the patient connect his future life story to his past.

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