Getting Attention

February 5, 2013

Just 10 days from now the staff and Board members of Unite 2 Fight Paralysis will gather for a combination board member training, advocacy workshop, and strategic planning session. Because we are scattered around the country, we try to meet for a weekend retreat like this every couple of years. It gives us a chance to evaluate all aspects of our operation as well as build strategies, momentum, and energy to carry our vision into the future.

As lead facilitator for the weekend, I’ve been doing a lot of reading in preparation. Sometimes the job we’ve undertaken (achieving a cure for paralysis after spinal cord injury), seems so immense that it’s hard to know where to focus. Just in time, a colleague of mine prepared a summary of “Back to Basics“, with pointed takeaway questions for the SCI cure movement.

SurvivePlague1Back to Basics“, written by Michael Manganiello and Margaret Anderson, chronicles the rise of the HIV/AIDS advocacy movement, considered to be the finest, most successful model of patient advocacy in our history, one that turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition in just a few years.

The AIDS epidemic was truly a matter of life and death, creating a motivation and urgency that drove patient advocates. What began as an emotional, grassroots reaction to a dire condition blossomed into an effectively organized, educated, and well-constructed movement with lessons for all of us.

It’s revealing to note that the very first issue addressed by AIDS advocates was getting ATTENTION, or “creating the will to transform policies”. In truth, we are still in our infancy in bringing attention to the need for a cure. We are transitioning from the fight for disability rights and accessibility to the fight for a cure. We’re still trying to convince members of our own community, let alone the general public, that we can and should achieve a cure.

How do we start getting attention? The HIV/AIDS movement employed civil disobedience to great effect, but is that realistic for the SCI community where health and resources are so compromised? I think we can begin by taking ownership of the word “cure” and using it in all of our messaging and communications. We are trying to change consciousness, both internal and external to our community, and develop belief.

If you’re serious about cure advocacy, I recommend that you take the time to read “Back to Basics” in its entirety. At the same time, keep an eye out for a showing of “How to Survive a Plague“, the Oscar-nominated documentary about the HIV/AIDS advocacy movement. It is currently in limited release at theaters around the country.

Changing Consciousness

December 17, 2012

I’m not going to write about curing spinal cord injury today, not after the horrific events in Newtown. Like you, I am shocked and grieving and wanting to find a way to stop this. I’ve read a number of insightful and eloquent blog entries these past few days that have helped to clarify my own thinking. I see three major components in our society that contribute to mass shootings:

  1. Our attitudes and treatment options around mental illness. Perhaps you read the heartfelt, thought-provoking piece by Liza Long, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother”. Ms. Long has a 13-year-old son who suffers from a mental illness that has her entire family living in fear, and despite their best efforts our health care system has not been able to offer any solutions. She knows her son is capable of a massacre on the order of Newtown.
  2. Violence in the media. I’ve been around long enough to witness a sea change in how violence is depicted in the media. It started back in the 60’s with the release of “Bonnie and Clyde”, where for the first time you saw on the screen people shot in the face at point-blank range. At the time it was shocking, but it sold tickets and started the inexorable march to the kind of senseless, gratuitous violence we now see portrayed in movies, TV shows, and video games. Whether we admit it or not, we’ve become totally desensitized to acts of violence in the media.
  3. Lack of gun control laws. It’s harder to buy a car or adopt a pet in this country than it is to buy a gun. Special-interest groups continue to rant about individual freedom and liberty as they refuse to acknowledge how lack of regulation holds all of us hostage to the fear of an assault rifle in the wrong person’s hands. Is this really what’s best for the common good?

At the end of the day, I find myself asking, “What can we do?” I can’t stand the thought that we’ll go through a week or two of grieving, and that will be the end of it. The opportunity is here to take on the challenge of changing consciousness. It’s the best way I can think of to honor the memory of the innocents who were slaughtered.

What if we chose to invest in services for the mentally ill, to agree as a society that we need to take care of this suffering segment of our population?

What if our media moguls agreed that the depiction of gratuitous violence was not healthy for our society, and decided to leave murder details out of their productions?

What if we demanded, at a minimum, a ban on rapid-fire weapons? In the face of the 2nd Amendment and a polarized Congress, I believe action on this front will have to come from a grassroots movement.

There is a precedent for this kind of action with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). It began with one woman’s heartbreak and grew to an effective organization that has seen drunk driving fatalities drop by 40% since its founding. They challenged a society that viewed drunk driving as acceptable, even laughable, and engineered a change in consciousness. We are long overdue for such a change in our attitudes toward guns, violence, and mental illness.

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.

The Big Picture

August 30, 2012

For most of the summer I have been writing content and assisting with the design of our new U2FP website. At times tedious, at times a labor of love, this exercise triggered a lot of reflection on how we have grown and evolved in the 5 years since our last website remodel.

For me personally, my U2FP journey has been a hugely educational experience on many fronts:

  • Understanding the science. This is an ongoing process, especially in such a complex field as neuroscience and regeneration. It’s not unlike learning about all the complications of a spinal cord injury. Slowly but surely we grasp the terminology, the sometimes grim realities, and finally a sense of what it will take to make things better.
  • Assessing the landscape. Where does curing paralysis stand in the broader field of medical research and translation? When we identify good science, how do we attract investors and bring it to clinical trial? How can we make our cause a priority amongst such worthy competition? The answers to these questions change with the financial and political winds.
  • Connecting with the community. This is far and away the most rewarding aspect of my job and the most energizing. It’s easy to get bogged down in the daily details of managing our programs – trying to catch up on emails, attending to the minutiae of organizing a conference, satisfying the various regulatory requirements. Just when I think that’s what my job is, I’ll hear from or read about or meet someone living with a spinal cord injury who is working so hard to make the very best out of a tough hand.

It’s a welcome reminder that in the end, our mission and our goals are about people. Less than 2 years after my son’s injury in 2002, I remember an “ah-ha” moment when I thought about all the extraordinary people we had met on the post-SCI journey. In order to make the best out of this life, you have to operate at a much higher level of purpose. You have to practice positive thinking on a daily basis; it’s so easy to falter.

For today, as we celebrate the launch of our new website, I want to take a moment to thank all of the people I have met along the way: for your courage, your determination, your perseverance, your grace, and for enriching my life.

Hope vs Hype

July 12, 2012

I hear and read it over and over again – cynicism in the spinal cord injury community when talking about a cure. I understand where it comes from.  Decades of time and billions of dollars that so far have not delivered a viable regenerative therapy. In my own experience, I remember hearing promises of “another 5 years” as a reasonable timeline to anticipate cures. That was 10 years ago.

Today’s world of constant media bombardment only fuels the hype. Almost daily we read stories of breakthroughs that may “one day” give paralyzed people the ability to walk again. So far, none of those predictions have come to reality.


It’s not just the media that misleads us. Around the world there are doctors and clinics offering stem cell and other specialized treatments, costing tens of thousands of dollars, and so far showing no verifiable efficacy. I have seen people with SCI work hard to raise the money for these therapies, head overseas with high hopes, and return home with nothing to show. They are reluctant and even embarrassed, understandably, to tell their supporters that the treatment failed.

And finally, we have some scientists who exaggerate the potential of their research, most often in an effort to raise more funding dollars. I find this to be the most unethical of the misleading information. The spinal cord injury community is a very vulnerable population. Many are desperate for any positive news that would give them hope of being able to breathe on their own, or use their hands. If they’re not yet cynical, they will hang on for dear life to a scientist who promises recovery.

In fact, we don’t have any therapy at this point, other than intensive exercise to promote neuroplasticity, that offers meaningful recovery of function. How do we fight our way through the hype to find good science worthy of our support?  The very best way is to take the time to read and understand published scientific papers showing verifiable data. Not all of us have the time or mental capacity for that task, however; we need trusted community leaders who will sift through the data and advise us.

Fortunately, this is the path that Unite 2 Fight Paralysis has chosen. We know that as a community we become empowered through education. We offer resources that will bring everyone up to speed on the science that as of today truly holds the most promise. For starters, visit U2FP Board Member Chris Powell’s SCI Research and Advocacy blog, and plan to join us in Irvine, California for the 7th annual Working 2 Walk Symposium.


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