Archive for the ‘wheelchair’ Category

Giving Thanks

November 20, 2012

It’s been nearly 3 months since my last blog post. That’s what attending to the details of our annual Working 2 Walk Symposium will do. While I love the knowledge, the energy, and the connections generated by the conference, it’s nice to have the chance to drop back to a slower pace and take time for reflection.

Our family shares in a very special Thanksgiving tradition. When we first moved to the beautiful Hood River Valley at the base of Mt. Hood in Oregon, we quickly made friends with our neighbors on the Dee Highway. We celebrated our first Thanksgiving together in 1979. A core group of 5 families began to generate offspring, some moved away from the Dee Highway, but as the families grew and dispersed, the shared Thanksgiving dinner continued.

Mt. Hood towers over the Hood River Valley

This holiday is more revered by our family than the Christmas/Hanukkah period. We look forward to spending the day with our dearest friends who we have known for most of our lives. We have supported each other through life’s travails of death, divorce, and catastrophic injury. This year’s celebration is one of milestones:

  • It was on Thanksgiving weekend 10 years ago that a flying wheel landed on top of my son’s pickup, and changed his and our lives forever. The day after his accident, two of the Dee Highway women drove 200 miles to be at our side in the hospital. Not coincidentally, they were also the midwives who delivered him at birth. Our friends provided the foundation of a support system that helped Noah navigate his way to a successful career as an attorney working for the EPA in San Francisco.
  • After 31 consecutive years of organizing this annual get-together, the “matriarchs” decided it was time to pass on the responsibility. Last year’s event was led by the “patriarchs” (dads), and this year for the first time the 2nd generation takes over. Our son Isaac and his wife will host a gathering of 30, achieving a milestone that ensures our wonderful tradition will continue for years to come.

I write this story to remind myself of what we have to be thankful for, and also what a world of difference a support system makes when one suffers a spinal cord injury. It is often the determining factor in whether a survivor adjusts well to post-SCI life. Unfortunately, the strength of one’s support system is often left to chance.

At Working 2 Walk I met people who had traveled to the conference from great distances. Those with high-level quadriplegic injuries were accompanied by family members and/or dedicated assistants. As I said in my opening remarks, they were the lucky ones. For every SCI survivor who attended, there are thousands more who would never have the opportunity because they lack such a support system.

I am thankful for our lifelong friends and family who anchored my son’s support system. I am thankful for his self-determination that worked in tandem with his supporters to bring him where he is today. And I am thankful for the opportunity to work with members of the SCI community, who practice persistence, self-discipline, courage, and grace on a daily basis.

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Shoulders to the Wheel

June 7, 2012

Prior to the invention of the automobile, people moved from place to place in carts, carriages & wagons.  If the  vehicle became stuck in the mud, it was common for the passengers to get out and work collectively to push it out, literally putting their “shoulders to the wheel”.

The image is a very apt metaphor for the challenges we face in the cure movement.  I believe we are now “unstuck” from the notion that axons cannot regenerate and there is no hope for curing paralysis. We still have a lot of “pushing” to do, however, to get our wagon all the way up the hill.

Putting your shoulder to the wheel means to put full effort into the task until it is completed, to work persistently and wholeheartedly. That’s what it will take to reach our goal, and the more shoulders we have, the faster we’ll get there.

Over the last few months, we’ve seen a couple living examples in the SCI community of advocates demonstrating this kind of effort. Out in California, Don and Roman Reed have been unwavering in their determination to renew funding for the Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act. This little bill has provided millions of dollars of support for the the Reeve-Irvine Research Center, but was a victim of budgetary cuts during the recession.

Undeterred, Don & Roman set forth to create an alternate funding source through an add-on to traffic tickets.  After several months of lobbying and negotiating, and aided by community e-mail campaigns, they are close to achieving their goal. You can learn how they did it and help them get to the finish line by following Don Reed’s blog here.

Another one of our powerful shoulders belongs to Dennis Tesolat. Talk about persistent! Several months ago, Dennis and a few of his friends asked The Rick Hansen Foundation a very simple question, “How much are you spending on a cure?”  I wrote about his efforts to solicit a satisfactory answer in last month’s blog entry, and regret to report that RHF did NOT offer any kind of response at the recent Interdependence conference.

That won’t discourage Dennis. Rather it will empower him to seek more community support, to reach out to the media and other organizations affiliated with RHF, and to continue his dogged persistence until we have an answer as to how the Foundation is working to achieve “a world without paralysis after spinal cord injury” (the RHF mission).

Don, Roman and Dennis don’t get a lot of media coverage for their work. They’re not flashy or self-promoting.  They don’t whine about life with SCI, or complain about the frustrations inherent in the glacial pace of our political and regulatory systems. They just put in the work from day to day, putting their shoulders to the wheel, staying true to the course, and keeping their eyes on the prize.

Speaking Truth to Power

May 7, 2012

If we’re ever going to gain traction as Cure Warriors, we’ve got to speak out to the various individual and organizational leaders in the spinal cord injury community.  Thanks to the persistent efforts of Dennis Tesolat (also known as Mr. “Stem Cells & Atom Bombs”), there is a respectful yet pointed appeal to the Rick Hansen Foundation (RHF) that as of today boasts over 700 signatures from around the world.

The Foundation has long proclaimed its vision to be “a world without paralysis after spinal cord injury”.  That’s our goal, too, so several months ago Dennis and a few of his friends sent RHF’s CEO a simple request:

  • “Please outline your spending on translational research for central nervous system regeneration, i.e. a cure for spinal cord injury.”

The response failed to outline any specifics other than what’s available in their annual report, i.e. – “81% goes to charitable programs.”  Dennis wasn’t satisfied, so he decided to get organized and continue to ask questions.  He asked for more details on RHF’s spending, and for Rick to publicly answer the questions at next week’s Interdependence Conference of SCI leaders.

I imagine most of my readers have already signed the appeal, but if not, there is still time if you do it today.  It’s an easy, one-click process from the Stem Cells & Atom Bombs website.  Follow this link.

The Rick Hansen Foundation earns annual revenues in excess of $20 million, 71% of which comes from Canadian national and provincial government funds.  This is an extraordinary amount of money, and with these types of resources the Foundation should respond to the wishes of the SCI community.

We respect the work that RHF has done to improve accessibility and quality of life for people living with SCI.  At this point in time, however, with so much promising regenerative research on the cusp of translation, it’s time for the Foundation to turn its attention and its resources to the achievement of a cure.  As survivors of spinal cord injury and family members, we have the right, and even moreso the responsibility, to speak up to those in power at the Rick Hansen Foundation.

Home for the Holidays

December 28, 2011

On December 1, 2002, my son suffered a C6/7 spinal cord injury when a wheel came off an oncoming truck and landed on top of his pickup.  9 years later, having graduated from law school and secured a full-time job, he came home to celebrate the holidays with his family.  Together we reflected on the remarkable journey he had taken to work his way back to physical, emotional, and financial independence.

If there is such a thing as being lucky in the wake of a spinal cord injury, it applies to my son.  Had his neck broken just a few millimeters higher, he would not have the use of his hands or arms.  He used every ounce of his energy and determination to achieve his goal of independence, but still could not have made it without the extraordinary support of his family, friends, community, and numerous strangers.  Such good fortune does not fall to many who are stricken with SCI.

While we celebrate and take pride in his accomplishments, we know that he represents the minority of those living with SCI.  According to the National SCI Statistical Center, at 20 years post-injury, only 35% of persons with a spinal cord injury are employed.  This statistic is not just a function of injury level; the employment rate for people with paraplegia is only slightly higher than for those with tetraplegia.  There are numerous social, psychological, and economic barriers that conspire to keep persons with SCI out of the work force.

The unemployment rate is but one of many “invisible” secondary complications of spinal cord injury.  While the media is full of “inspiring” stories about people living with SCI, much less is said about what goes on behind the scenes.  No one wants to start a pity party, but if we’re going to achieve “cure consciousness”, we need to speak the truth about:

  • the loss of bowel, bladder & sexual function;
  • psychological trauma & suicide;
  • loss of time, productivity, and often independence;
  • a host of other issues that accompany spinal cord injury.

For every heartwarming story in the media, there are hundreds more untold about people and the daily realities of SCI that no one ever sees.  The public is often led to believe that one can achieve recovery through hard work and determination alone; if this were true, the majority of survivors would be up and walking around.

I am extremely proud of what my son has accomplished since his injury, and at the same time appreciate that it was made possible by some good fortune and a remarkable support system that augmented his efforts.  I also know that he would readily embrace the opportunity for regenerative therapies that could give him back a healthy body.

A Revolution of Empowerment

November 17, 2011

In my opening remarks at Working 2 Walk, I spoke about the legacy of Justin Dart.  If you don’t know the name, Justin Dart is widely considered to be the Father of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and he was a lifelong disability and human rights activist.

Mr. Dart was stricken with polio at the age of 18, and this life-altering event set him on a remarkable life journey.  A series of encounters with other polio patients, with the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, and with 3rd world “rehabilitation” centers charted a course that eventually led to passage of the ADA.

Throughout his life of advocacy, Justin Dart embraced the principle of inclusiveness and shared his vision of a “revolution of empowerment” – a revolution that would “eliminate obsolete thoughts and systems”, and give every human being the right to develop his/her capacities to the fullest.  Shortly before his death in 2002, he published a manifesto of extraordinary wisdom and lessons for the future, “Toward a Culture of Individualized Empowerment” (it’s a worthwhile read).

One of the most humbling and frustrating aspects of paralysis is the loss of power, and in many cases, independence.  If Justin Dart were alive today, I have no doubt that he would join our effort to revolutionize the way we look at paralysis.  To teach the world that it is a curable condition, that we, the grassroots advocates, the cutting-edge research scientists, and the pro-active investors, can empower ourselves by organizing, educating and advocating until a cure is achieved.

On another note, this week’s news that Geron is dropping their clinical trial in spinal cord injury shocked and angered much of the community.  Personally, while this development is disappointing, I don’t find it surprising.  As I’ve said before, achieving marketable therapies is business, not personal.  We can take some positives out of the fact that Geron made an enormous investment to demonstrate that hESC’s could be used safely in humans, a step that has hopefully paved the way for future therapies to pass through the regulatory process more quickly.



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