“Sometimes, people need a friend to talk to more than anything else.” 

Larsen Jay, Random Acts of Flowers founder and trauma survivor, knows the value of a listening ear and shoulder to lean on more than most, and this has motivated him to be one of the founders and an active member of the University of Tennessee’s Trauma Survivors Network (TSN).

Photo by Nadine Priestley Photography.

The TSN was created at the University of Tennessee in January 2016 out of the American Trauma Society under the umbrella of the Trauma Advisory Council. The purpose of the Advisory Council is to bring together patients, family members, doctors, and administrators to encourage the hospital to think more from the patients’ and caregivers’ perspectives, as well as also to form the peer-to-peer TSN  program for patients who have sustained life-altering events, like a car accident or a fall from a height, connecting them with people who have shared a similar experience.


Therese Zaltash, coordinator for the TSN, breaks down why the program is so important to patients and caregivers

Therese Zaltash

“The medical aspect of their care is so precise and is down to minutia in regards to specific treatments and methodology, but what we’ve learned over time is that the patient sustains such anxiety and stress from the unknown. What does this injury mean? They might not have ever been in the hospital before. They may be separated from their family due to distance or insurance reasons. And, our support program has people come in for these patients.

We try to provide information to decrease anxiety. We believe information and education is power throughout the journey. We get in as quickly as we can, try to meet them as soon after admission as possible, when they’re in the critical care unit. We tell them about the resources that are available to them, so they can know what they have access to.

Trauma has multiple disciplines looking over your care – orthopedics, neurology, geriatric, pharmacology, etc. – and it can be overwhelming. Oftentimes, these people’s lives are going to be forever changed. We do a great job of putting them back together physically, but the emotional component is a challenge and it’s going to be a long road to follow. The meat and potatoes of our organization are the peer mentors, which is where Larsen comes in.”

What we get to do is go in and say ‘You have survived, you are here, and now what can we do to help you understand what the next steps will look like.’

Larsen Jay soon after his 2007 accident.

As a former trauma patient himself, Larsen knows how difficult the process can be. “The thing I always remember is that their whole world is upside down and they have no idea what the new normal is going to be like. They might be worrying about the logistical things about their life, ‘Did I feed my pet?’ But it’s also, ‘How am I going to put my life back together?’ It’s totally disorienting and exhausting from minute one on. And, so what we get to do is go in and say ‘You have survived, you are here, and now what can we do to help you understand what the next steps will look like.’” One thing that Larsen does to show patients that he understands is to bring in pictures from his own accident which he says “breaks down the barriers to help them see that there’s life after trauma.

Larsen describes the peer-to-peer network as “we’re a third therapist, a third friend, and a third ‘take a breath, it’s going to be okay,’ perspective. It gives the current patient an outlet to someone who isn’t a doctor, nurse, or administrator, but someone who’s been where they’ve been. A real community connector. About 40% of the people who come through the trauma center aren’t from Knoxville. They’re from all over the region, and could be 6-8 hours from home. So, we’re patient advocates but also ambassadors for our Knoxville community.”

Besides being a good listener, added support, and community ambassadors, the TSN peers can also help patients with the logistics of being in the trauma center – how to ask questions, smooth the process, and advocate for yourself. That you have the right as a patient to stay in control of your treatment. Therese recalls how valuable RAF Co-founder (and Larsen’s wife) Adrian’s presence was during his time in the trauma center. “When he came, he was blessed in that he and his wife Adrian work so well together. She was at his bedside from the very beginning and took notes on every single thing that transpired – medications, staff changes, questions to ask. Oftentimes, patients don’t feel that they have a voice to ask those questions, but they did. They asked those questions.” Adrian now serves as a peer mentor for caregivers in the TSN.

In the end, Larsen says “The thing that motivates me the most is the fact that I’m alive and I can help the next person. I didn’t have that when I went through, so I recognize the value of it. It’s our duty to help the person who is going through what we went through, because we wish we had it.”

On Thursday, May 18th, Larsen will speak on the role of the peer visitor at the First Annual Trauma Survivor Network Survivor Celebration. This event will recognize the success and healing process of all the UT Trauma Center’s 2016 patients, as well as recognize the medical staff and volunteers who worked with them.