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Spinal Cord Veteran’s hobby leads to a more important purpose

A Veteran is sitting next to a model ship inside a case
Army Veteran John Bemben sits next to the model of "the Syren." He donated his completed model to the South Texas Veterans Health Care System Spinal Cord Injury & Disorder clinic. It took Bemben more than two years to complete.

As you enter the Spinal Cord Injury and Disorder (SCI/D) clinic at the Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital, you are greeted by a wooden replica of the U.S.S. Syren.

The model was built, and donated by Army Veteran John Bemben, who said it took almost as long to convince Spinal Cord Injury and Disorder (SCI/D) leadership to provide a new home for the famous Navy vessel as it took for Bemben to cut, glue, pin and rig it together. He spent over two years on the build.

It took a few additional years to get the model in the SCI/D lobby.

It was placed in the lobby in March,” Bemben said. “I was trying to do this for five years and hoping that just one person sees it.”

Bemben’s physician, and newly-appointed chief of SCI/D, Dr. Divya Singhal responded to a request from Bemben to bring a model into the hospital.

“I clarified, are you asking for your own space, and he said yes,” Singhal said. “The very next day, it showed up in the lobby and I didn’t realize that it was going to be so big” Singhal added. After clearing it through the Center for Development and Civic Engagement, the early 19th Century vessel found its final port.

Bemben has been a patient at the South Texas Veterans Health Care System and the SCI/D clinic for 20 years and his history with modeling is almost as long and storied as the Syren itself.

He has been modeling for 50 years, even though initially, the hobby did not stick because his first model was left unfinished. Bemben said he has finished six models in the last 15 years. That longevity is impressive. In addition to a broken neck, he also suffers from Multiple Sclerosis which he said saps a bit of his energy.

“It doesn’t interfere with my modeling,” Bemben said. “When I get tired, I just know it is time for me to step away from it,”

Bemben isn’t the only one who gets to experience modeling. There are several other completed kits on display at SCI/D. Some of those inspired by Bemben. The kits are just one of the activities the expanded recreation therapy program offers patients. In an SCI environment, recreational activities play an important role for their physical and cognitive benefits.

“Veterans who recreate can look forward to reducing depression, stress, and anxiety in addition to improving basic motor functioning and fine motor skills when participating in meaningful activities and hobbies, such as model building, painting, etc.” said Erin Dixon, Chief of Recreation Therapy Service.

Bemben echoed those sentiments. “Modeling helps with everything,” Bemben said. “It helps my hands, my motor skills and makes me think about what I’m doing.”

Maintaining cognitive abilities is what keeps Bemben moving forward. He admits he wasn’t always so positive when he first became quadriplegic.

“Sixteen years went by and all I was doing was watching old movies and I needed something better to do, so I built ships back then,” Bemben said. “You have to have a reason to live.”  

A research study conducted by the Mayo Clinic found participants who engaged in artistic hobbies such as painting, drawing or sculpture in both middle and old age were 73 percent less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment than those who didn't. Those who crafted -- doing things like pottery, woodworking, quilting or sewing -- were 45 percent less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment.

Modeling is not the only hobby that Bemben likes to participate in. He also spends time mentoring other SCI/D patients through their new lives. As an inside joke between patient and provider, mentoring is part of Bemben’s official duties as “associate of patient care.”

He takes this charge seriously. “If I can help anybody, help them in the chair, you got it,” Bemben said vehemently.

Singhal said informal and formal mentoring is very common in the SCI field. Even from a national program perspective, it is highly encouraged.

“In SCI, it’s even more important because it is an immediate life-changing event, so not only are you learning to live in the new body, your family and loved ones are also learning to cope with it,” Singhal said.

One common theme that Singhal hears is that when it comes from a Veteran who is in a similar situation, it is invaluable to them.

Singhal tapped into the power of that peer support and asked Bemben to mentor a few newer spinal cord patients that were having difficulties transitioning.

“I understood where he was, I feel like I made a difference,” Bemben said. “When somebody tells you what to expect that has already been there, it’s different than hearing it from a doctor.”

The model warship had diverse missions throughout its history. Now it has a new one. 

“I figured that if just one person in spinal cord can see this [model], after I couldn’t move my hand, I broke my neck, I felt nothing. If I can come back and build this, you can do something besides waiting to die,” Bemben said.






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