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Altered course

Master of social work graduate perseveres after life-altering accident

special feature: Student Success 2019

Part of a special feature celebrating the success of Memorial's graduates. This feature coincides with spring 2019 convocation ceremonies.

By Laura Woodford

Spring graduate Edwin Riggs will receive his master of social work degree during Memorial’s spring convocation on May 30.

It’s an accomplishment that was far from assured mid-way through his program.

Edwin Riggs will collect his master of social work degree on Thursday, May 30.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

After having just completed the spring semester of his part-time master’s program in August 2016, Mr. Riggs had a terrible fall that would change his plans – and his life – drastically. The accident left Mr. Riggs in intensive care, on life-support, with significant injuries.

Cognitive and mental health

Once he was stabilized, Mr. Riggs faced many challenges and a long recovery period.

That recovery was every bit as much about his mental health as his physical health. There were barriers to his recovery, he says, because of his own thought processes. And while his physical recovery was easy to evaluate, his mental recovery was not.

Ironically, Mr. Riggs has 25 years’ experience working in various areas of the mental-health field, in the public and private sector. Having helped numerous people over the years, Mr. Riggs found he was the one now requiring the help and advice of others. He found it humbling to be in the position of receiving care, instead of being the care provider.

“I found my mental health was directly related to my physical health – worrying if my eyesight was ever going to be the same again, for instance, or not being able to keep up with my family on a simple walk,” he said. “I thought I was well-informed, but it’s different when it’s your own recovery.”

Mr. Riggs grappled with the guilt of having brought what he perceived to be a burden and stress on his family and friends. Married, with two teenagers, his motivation was to ensure his children were okay.

“I had to come to terms with the fact that this type of recovery takes time.” — Edwin Riggs

His family feared that they were going to lose him, so he felt that the quicker he recovered, the quicker his children could see that he was coping. Mr. Riggs struggled with the timeline of his recovery, put pressure on himself and had to work hard to try to be more patient with himself.

In November 2016, he was able to ease back to work; he resumed his academic course work two months later.

“I wasn’t really good with the time factor. I was trying my hardest to be at my pre-accident form as soon as possible. I kept telling myself I was fine – my family life, social life, academic life – but that wasn’t the case. In the short term, I had to come to terms with the fact that this type of recovery takes time.”

Academic worries

Worried also about his academic program, the support he received from the School of Social Work helped immeasurably, Mr. Riggs says.

“My wife gave them updates and they would reassure me that we’d discuss my program when I was physically and cognitively capable of returning,” he said.

“My supervisor, Dr. Ross Klein, was so in-tune and attentive, not just on the academic part, but in other aspects of my recovery. He was compassionate, understanding and sincere. And Ivy Burt, the master of social work student services co-ordinator, was truly amazing. They looked at me as a human being, and as a family man, and said they’d do whatever they could to support me.”

Edwin Riggs took only one semester’s leave of absence during his whole ordeal.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Since his return to university in winter 2017, Mr. Riggs has worked hard to successfully complete the MSW program within his nine semester time frame. He took only one semester’s leave of absence during his whole ordeal.

Personal and professional improvements

Mr. Riggs believes his unfortunate experience has ultimately made him a better social worker. He says it has modified his life perspective, including his work life, social life and family life, and how he values things around him.

It has affected his understanding of different situations, improved his listening skills and made him more intuitive to people’s situations and barriers.

“It made me think about my clients, friends and family, and how they receive warmth and care when they’re in distress. The smallest of gestures makes a world of difference.”

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