Athlete says spinal cord injury gave him purpose

By By TIMOTHY MEINCH

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — It's one thing to cope with a lifelong injury by thinking positive and forcing optimism; it's quite another to turn that tragedy into genuine drive and passion for helping others.

But that's been the unwavering course for Luther College junior Chris Norton since he suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury on the football field more than two years ago.

The injury, the crippling result of a collision as Norton covered a kickoff for the Norse, left him facedown and motionless on the Luther College football field on Oct. 16, 2010. Norton, 18 at the time of the injury, has baffled physicians and physical therapists who gave him a 3 percent chance of ever regaining movement below his neck. He now stands without support for 10 minutes straight and can walk with some support.

"It's definitely given me a sense of purpose and a direction," 20-year-old Norton said, recalling a carefree, simple mindset at the start of his freshman year that now seems foreign. "If I didn't get hurt, I'd just be coasting along and I wouldn't have the drive or passion like I do now."

Norton's tenacity and endurance was aired nationally on CBS — after winning the national Courage in Sports award in 2011 — and he has since thrown the first pitch at a Minnesota Twins game. Now that his story has been shared with thousands, he says it is time to directly affect the stories of others with similar injuries.

In August, the Altoona native, along with his father, Terry, and a faithful group of supporters, started The SCI CAN Foundation (Spinal Cord Injury, Christopher Anderson Norton) with the goal of providing advanced resources that are not available or accessible to most people with spinal cord injuries and neurological disorders.

"Not many people have that many opportunities lined up like I have," Chris Norton said. "I believe it's been pretty instrumental just having that equipment for my use and having friends and family that help me out."

Norton received insurance coverage through the National Collegiate Athletic Association because his injury occurred during an NCAA football game. That insurance granted him access to expensive therapeutic equipment that made all the difference in his recovery, according to his Mayo Clinic physical therapist, Megan Gill, who is now a SCI CAN board member.

Two particular items were crucial: an electronic Bioness unit that stimulates arm, hand, foot and finger movement, and an RT300, a specialized bike that utilizes the same electronic technology. Without insurance, a Bioness unit sells for about $15,000 and the bike costs nearly twice that amount.

Norton's vision for SCI CAN took off when he learned patients with spinal cord injuries have access to fewer than five of these specialized therapy bikes in the state of Iowa.

"When you get some really adequate equipment, it really prolongs people's recovery going forward," Norton said. "And I want everyone to have the same opportunity I had."

Within four months of establishing SCI CAN, Norton presented Winneshiek Medical Center in Decorah with a $27,000 grant to purchase an RT300 bike. More than 200 people from around the country donated about $15,000 to the cause before the first fundraising event even took place Sept. 30 in Decorah, which nearly doubled the funds.

On Jan. 27, SCI CAN's second fundraising event will take place at the Prairie Meadows Conference Center in Altoona. Chris and Terry have been speaking with professional athletes and coaches about attending and donating auction items, such as a pair of game-used cleats and a signed hat from Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Ryan Clark that arrived last week. Tickets to Chicago Bulls and Bears games and many other items have also been donated.

The event will include lunch, live and silent auctions, and various speakers, including Chris, who will address the lack of equipment for patients with injuries like his.

"There is such a demand and a need for this type of foundation because this is a very underserved population of patients that are really striving for more access," said Gill, the physical therapist who specializes in spinal cord injury therapy.

Terry Norton, who helps on the administrative end with SCI CAN, said metro area rehab facilities and fitness centers like the Altoona Campus and Younker Rehabilitation at Iowa Methodist Medical Center have already submitted applications for grant money, and they expect to receive more applications before the January event.

Considering the overwhelming response in four months and the success of the Decorah fundraiser, Terry Norton said he has set a goal of raising between $25,000 and $30,000 at the Prairie Meadows fundraiser.

"When we handed that check to Winneshiek it was such a thrill," Terry Norton said.

Chris echoed these words after giving the first grant, adding that he is ready to commit a significant portion of his future to this cause.

"I want to run this organization as my job and career, along with motivational and public speaking," Chris Norton said.

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Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com

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