Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Northwestern University Prosthetics-Orthotics Center

Orthotics Model Clarence Coakley

Orthotics Model Clarence C.Clarence Coakley is a man of quiet charm and heartfelt conversation. In November 2010 Mr. Coakley founded Men with a Purpose, a support group designed to help men with disabilities. The group meets on the second and fourth Fridays of each month from 1:00-3:00 p.m. at Access Living.

Recently, NUPOC and Mr. Coakley conversed about his experiences and how he developed the idea for this peer support group. Learn more about Men with a Purpose and the improvement this activity have made in his life and in the lives of others.

NUPOC: How did you get the idea for your support group?

Mr. Coakley: I sat in the RIC lobby beside the statue of Henry Betts and invited people to attend. Also, I spent time in the RIC cafeteria talking with other men about how I wanted to build this group. For months I talked to various people, nurses, PTs, OTs, and Jamee R. Heelan, OTR/L, the Education Program Manager in the RIC Life Center. Everyone said, 'Go for it. What are you waiting for? You can do it. Speak from the heart.'

I began to look for meeting rooms. I went to Access Living and spoke from my heart about what I thought the group would be about. I just got the ball rolling. Access Living offered a meeting room and help getting the word out. At first I was afraid that no one would show up, but someone always shows up. Now the group has been meeting there for 6 months.

NUPOC: Do you have an agenda or planned programs at your group meetings?

Mr. Coakley: Sometimes guest speakers come to talk with us. The meetings are an opportunity for us to talk about building friendships, getting out into the community, living in a safe environment, and health care issues, like how to avoid pressure sores. We talk about how to work out and keep our strength built up. This improves our confidence and our health. We talk about what programs and topics we are interested in for the future. The group is growing by word of mouth, flyers, and my calls to people on a sign up list. Sometimes I sit by the statue of Henry Betts in the RIC lobby and I talk to new people that I meet. Someone new attends every meeting.

NUPOC: Who are the participants in Men with a Purpose?

Mr. Coakley: Men with a Purpose reaches out to all men with a disability. We welcome everyone. They might be blind, have an amputation, traumatic brain injury, stroke, cerebral palsy, spinal cord injury, or something else. Men with all kinds of disability are welcome. At every meeting different people attend, sometimes more and other times less. Recently, we had a meeting that 15 people attended.

My goal is to reach out to other men who also are living with physical disabilities. If I can touch one person, influence just one person to get out into the community, I will have done my job. If I can help other men who have disabilities, then my job would be complete.

NUPOC: Tell us a little about yourself.

Mr. Coakley: I have been living 27 years in a wheelchair. Sometimes people in a chair seem to give up. If I can help them get back out into the community, they will feel better.

Last year I felt depressed from living with this condition. When you feel depressed, you tend to overeat. My weight bulked up from 175 pounds to 225 pounds. I’ve been working hard to stay toned and trim back. Now I weigh 190 pounds and I hope to be at 185 this summer. I tone up with weights and I don’t eat in the evening. I work to tone my muscles, not build bulky muscles.

I thank God that I’m still here. I never went to a nursing home. My mother took care of me at home. Now she is 84 and my older sister and my personal assistant help me with things I can’t do by myself. Now, I wouldn’t want to go into a nursing home. I’d do whatever I could to stay on my own. Our house is on the ground level, so I have an easy access entry. It’s small, but it’s a roof over our heads.

NUPOC: How were you injured?

Mr. Coakley: I was shot 5 times in a case of mistaken identity. I was shocked. My body just shut down and I couldn’t run. Everything seemed like it was slow motion. I was shot 1 time in the side and 4 times in the back. I have an incomplete C-7 condition, but I can dress myself, and put on my shoes by myself. I was 24 at the time. Now I am 52, so I have spent 27 years in a wheelchair. At the time, I couldn’t believe that this happened to me. I spent 56 days in the Intensive Care Unit. They caught the shooter and he served 6 years and then got out of prison. At first I was bitter. Now I don’t hold a grudge and I’m not bitter. This kind of thing can happen to anyone. I used to think that this would not have happened if I had stayed home that night, but this can happen to anyone. Life is not promised to anyone.

NUPOC: At the outset, how did you recover from the initial shock of being paralyzed?

Mr. Coakley: My family, friends and people on the rehab team all helped me, but especially my family helped me. My sister’s boyfriend was real good to me. He used to push me in my chair and gave me transportation to wherever I wanted to go. I came to RIC with a pressure sore that I didn’t even know I had. I learned how to avoid pressure sores by shifting my weight and keeping my skin moisturized.

NUPOC: The change in your situation must have been especially difficult when you were a young man. It must have taken a lot of effort to recover from a devastating, life-altering injury.

Mr. Coakley: Now I've made new friends, different friends than when I was walking. People who were my friends back then didnt show up. After I got shot, they didn't call. I felt sad waiting for them and used to sit by the window and cry. My father told me, 'Junior, you have to get over that.' So I put it in my mind that if they come over, OK and if they don’t, it’s OK. I came back to rehabilitation for recreation and I met new people who are my friends now. Now I get out into the community. I go shopping on my own to the mall and other stores. It’s good to get out into the community. We may consider going out as a group somewhere, maybe have a barbecue or go bowling.

NUPOC: You have faced some really difficult times in your life.

Mr. Coakley: Everyone has difficult times in their life. I know what it’s like to feel low and last year I felt like I could not go on. Some people have really helped me come back and that’s one reason why I want to reach out and help other people through my support group.

Of course my family stands by me and is always important to me. Another person I really want to appreciate is Ms. Evelyn Rodriguez, Girls’ Mentoring Coordinator at Access Living. She’s been very helpful and encouraging. She told me, ‘Clarence, what are you waiting for? I’ve got a meeting and a room set up for you at Access Living!’ When I started the support group, she booked the rooms in November, December, and January. She really stood by me. She facilitated the women’s support group and gave me a lot of important information about how to keep a support group running.

Another person I want to appreciate is Elijah Washington. I grew up with Elijah Washington and we went to grammar school together. Elijah tried to help me after I got hurt. Also, he really helped me after I tried to commit suicide and came to the hospital almost every day to support me. He is my really good friend.

NUPOC: You have come a long way.

Mr. Coakley: When I felt depressed last year, I decided to leave it in God’s hands. God showed me a vision and it was building this support group for men with disabilities. My friends told me that they never saw me fight so hard for something. My friends tried to get me to go out and protest about something, but that’s not for me. I'd rather meet and talk with people. Recently I started talking to a young woman who was recovering from a car accident. She said that she hadn't laughed for months. I told her, 'Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.'

Mr. Coakley is a man who never gives up. Modest and compassionate, he would hesitate to admit that his outreach activities are inspirational, but he has adapted and adjusted to life changes that emerged from trauma, tragedy, and disability. Mr. Coakley has survived these experiences as a personable and sincere activist who seeks to improve the circumstances and life experience of men who live with a disability.

Written by R. J. Garrick, PhD

In addition to outreach activities on behalf of Men with a Purpose, Mr. Coakley also volunteers his time as a patient model for orthotics students at NUPOC. If you are a man who lives with a disability, you may wish to consider joining Mr. Coakley at an upcoming meeting of Men with a Purpose.

(Interview and story by R. J. Garrick, PhD)

Become an Educational Model

If you have a physical disability or use a prosthesis or orthosis and would like to volunteer as an Educational Model at NUPOC, please contact Ken Harris.