Staying Positive with a Spinal Cord Injury
One of the most important aspects of recovery and rehabilitation following a spinal cord injury (SCI) is finding a way to stay positive in daily life. The following inspirational individuals demonstrate how maintaining a positive attitude not only benefitted their own lives, but led to major strides in the SCI community overall.
CPN Founder Sam Schmidt: Focus on passion to motivate action
Former Indy Racing League driver Sam Schmidt sustained a C- 3/4/5 SCI during an IndyCar practice session for the 2000 season opener at Walt Disney World Speedway. Doctors told him he faced a life sentence in a wheelchair only being able to move his head and shoulders. After receiving this life-altering news, Sam quickly realized that he needed to focus on finding a passion – something positive that would make the two and a half hours it takes to get ready every morning worthwhile.
One of Sam’s passions, racing, remains a big part of his life. His continued involvement in the racing community as team owner in the Verizon IndyCar Series and Firestone Lights series teams not only helps him stay positive, it has led to major breakthroughs as well. In May 2014, Sam was able to drive the groundbreaking Semi-Autonomous Motorcar (SAM) around the Indianapolis Speedway reaching a speed of nearly 100 mph. He worked with a team of engineers at Arrow Electronics to install technology that would turn the car when Sam turned his head and accelerate and brake with "sip and puff" technology. This triumph gave Sam a sense of normalcy he never thought he would have again.
Another major motivator for Sam is his daughter. She was just three and his son, Spencer, was 6 months when the accident happened, and Sam plans to walk Savannah her down the isle when her wedding day comes someday and is determined to participate in Spencer’s as well. This hope turned into focusing on finding a cure for paralysis. The same year he sustained his injury Sam started the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, now known as Conquer Paralysis Now (CPN), to raise funds for medical research, innovative equipment used for rehabilitation and quality-of-life issues for SCI-injured individuals. CPN plans to award nearly $20 million in grants and prizes over the next 10 years to accelerate the development of treatments for SCI in order to provide significant improvements in patients' quality of life.
“I lost the use of my limbs, but not my will,” Sam says. “When my daughter gets married, it will be her father that walks her down the isle.”
CPN Champion Amy Van Dyken: Find the will power to fight back
Six-time Olympic gold medalist Amy Van Dyken’s life changed in an instant during a riding trip in the mountains with her husband. The emergency brake on her ATV failed causing her to go over an embankment – a seven-foot drop. Her ATV landed on her spine and she was rushed to a hospital by Flight for Life. Amy’s injury was severe – she was leaking spinal fluid and her surgeon didn’t know if she was going to make it. Before she went into surgery, Amy’s husband told her that if this was all too much, she could let go. Amy saw this as a challenge.
During her recovery and rehabilitation phase, Amy realized the best way to fight for a normal life again was to take action. She founded Amy’s Army and the Amy Van Dyken Foundation to provide essential medical equipment for people living with an SCI who cannot afford these necessities. She chronicles her daily challenges through Twitter and Instagram, hoping to inspire other SCI-injured individuals to join the fight for themselves and to someday find a cure to paralysis.
Amy says her own inspiration to fight comes from her husband – he inspires her to focus on self-improvement rather than let her injury get the best of her. In addition to staying mentally strong through her efforts with Amy’s Army and the foundation, Amy works hard to stay physically strong. She exercises her lower abs every day to be physically ready when the cure for paralysis arrives.
Amy became a CPN Champion in 2014, a full supporter of the CPN Challenge Program and its mission to push doctors to fight to find a cure.
“Someday, someone will be in the Flight for Life helicopter like I was, and they will be told, ‘Yes, you will be ok,’” Amy says. “They will be paralyzed for a couple of hours and then they are going to walk out of that hospital. With the CPN Challenge, it’s going to happen.”
CPN Champion Jen French: Continue doing the activities you love
Jen French has been SCI for 16 years, but she continues to be as active as she was before her accident. Jen became a quadriplegic from a C6-7 incomplete SCI as the result of a snowboarding accident in 1998. Although she was told she would never get out of a wheelchair, she refused to accept this fate.
Jen’s incomplete injury meant there was hope she would be able to continue participating in the activities she loved – with the help of technology. Following her injury Jen received the Implantable Stand & Transfer System – the first woman to receive such a system. This system allows her to participate as a member of the U.S. Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider, and it led her to earn the title of 8-time-winner of the Milan-Gruson award for top disabled female skipper and a silver medal from the 2011 & 2012 IFDS World Championships. She was also named 2012 Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year – the first woman with a disability to do so.
Jen’s personal achievements inspired her to give back to the SCI community. As a user of neurotechnology, she is the founder of the non-profit organization Neurotech Network, which educates and advocates for neurotechnology in the SCI community. She is also on several advisory boards for research-based organizations related to spinal cord injury and has authored the book “On My Feet Again: My Journey Out of the Wheelchair Using Neurotechnology.” She officially became a CPN Champion in 2014, energized by the CPN Challenge’s goal to cure paralysis in the next 10 years.
“The CPN campaign is revolutionary in a lot of ways- one of them being that it is finally bringing together the scientific community in collaboration,” Jen says. “CPN understands there isn’t a silver bullet, but that a combination of things is needed to come up with a cure for paralysis.”
Sam, Amy and Jen’s stories demonstrate the power behind staying positive for individuals living with an SCI. While the CPN Challenge works hard to influence a cure, SCI-injured individuals can benefit significantly from turning hope into action, fighting back and finding ways to continue doing the things they love in the meantime.