Life changed for Thabiso Rowan in summer 2011. As a freelance painter, he was busy. He hadn’t had a day off in two months.

On a June morning, he decided to enjoy some time away from work. He went to the farmer’s market, and picked out ingredients for a special dinner that night. Since he had some extra time, he made a stop at one of his favorite spots.

“I had been climbing trees along the Mississippi River for years and specifically this one tree,” said the then 25-year-old St. Paul native.

Severely injured in a fall

“I don’t remember what happened. I fell out of the tree. We know that much. I wasn’t found until the next morning,” Thabiso said. “I broke seven ribs. I punctured a lung. I ruptured a lung. I had teeth knocked out. I had a brain injury, and bleeding in the skull.”

But the most severe injury was to Thabiso’s spinal cord. He was paralyzed from the waist down, and doctors told him he wouldn’t walk again.

Faced with the knowledge that life wouldn’t be the same, Thabiso forged a new path. It’s one traveled in a wheelchair, but that hasn’t made it any less special.

“I went back to school and ended up getting a degree in Human Services with an emphasis in disability studies,” he said.

Almost six years later, he works for an organization that helps find housing for seniors as well as people with disabilities. In addition, they also provide assisted living services, an issue that is very important to him.

A connection with Regions Hospital

“I was here in the hospital for three months after I fell, so I have a relationship with the people here at Regions Hospital,” Thabiso said.

In November 2016, Thabiso returned to Regions. He was suffering from severe pressure sores that made it extremely painful to sit in his wheelchair. The Burn Center team used skin grafts to treat the wounds. The procedure was a success, but unfortunately for Thabiso, it required a three-week stay in the hospital.

“After a week, I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I am going crazy,’” he said.

That’s when a nurse reminded him about the Regions Music Therapy Program. During his initial stay, music therapists would use music to help him through the healing process.

“Music is everything to me. It’s a really big part of my life. And music therapy was a way for me to express those emotions and release some of those feelings,” said Thabiso, who was thrilled to have lyrical visitors once again.

But these visits would be different.

Anna and Thabiso collaborate on writing a song

“A lot of the time I am working with patients who don’t have any musical experience,” said Anna Eltringham, a music therapist at Regions.

When she met Thabiso, she quickly learned that he was a musician, and she was able to identify what would best help him.

“For Thabiso, it was the anxiety and the desire to leave the hospital,” Anna said.

So she suggested that the two of them write a song together.

“We wrote a verse each time she came,” Thabiso said. “I was able to keep myself occupied. I was thinking of something I was excited about. I was looking forward to the music therapy. It was huge. It was a really big impact.”

And it was fun for Anna, too.

“Usually, when I do song writing, it’s typically me leading it and a lot of structure. So this was unique and very cool to be able to meet Thabiso and really collaborate on a song,” Anna said.

The creation of As I Rise

The song is called As I Rise. And it was featured, along with Thabiso’s story, on a recent episode of Disability Viewpoints, a show that airs on a local cable access channel.

“The song really speaks to my experience in the hospital for those three weeks,” Thabiso said. “It’s all about me getting out of the hospital. Really nice people here, but I was ready to get back to my life.”

Collaborating on a song is just one option for music therapists to help patients. It works because it provides space for them to express what they are feeling.

“That can be grief, but also joy,” Anna said. “Then we move on to what a patient has to look forward to. What’s important to them, and what do they look to in life when they find themselves stuck in a tough situation.”

Offering to collaborate on a song was all about supporting Thabiso as his body healed.

“She was really sweet and really made me feel comfortable,” Thabiso said. “I really enjoy what we wrote. It was powerful and I think it was even more powerful for me because I was in a vulnerable position.”