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Life after the accident Noah Smith’s life changed 2½ years ago in the blink of an eye

By JANET COOK

News staff writer

April 5

It’s been nearly two-and-a-half years since Noah Smith was injured in a car accident as he returned to Eugene after spending Thanksgiving in Hood River with his family.

That festive holiday family gathering would be the last for the Smith family in the world in which they lived prior to Dec. 1, 2002. After that, everything about their lives changed forever.

By now, most people know the story and Noah and his family don’t like to dwell on it. Noah, then a 22-year-old junior at the University of Oregon, was driving back to Eugene when a car traveling the other way lost a wheel.

The wheel rolled along the highway, hit the concrete median and flew across it, smashing into the cab of Noah’s pickup truck.

Police and rescue crews were on the scene almost immediately and used an extraction tool to get Noah, who was unconscious, out of his truck. At the hospital doctors determined that his C7 vertebrae had been shattered, rendering him a quadriplegic, with no movement or feeling in his legs and limited movement in his arms and hands.

And so began Noah’s — and his family’s — Life After the Accident.

Noah spent several weeks at the Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon after his accident. Then he lived at home for a time while continuing as an outpatient at RIO. In May 2003 he traveled to Chicago for a clinical trial on a machine called a Lokomat, which moved Noah’s legs over a treadmill at about 2 mph under the theory that such movement would jumpstart his nervous system. Unfortunately, severe muscle spasms hampered his progress.

Noah began searching for a rehabilitation facility that would best suit him. He landed in Utah for a few months, where he attended a couple of facilities before moving to Carlsbad, Calif., last April and enrolling in an innovative program there called Project Walk.

“After visiting several other rehab facilities on the West Coast we decided that Project Walk would offer me the most one-on-one attention and most frequent workouts,” Noah writes in an e-mail. “Their attitude toward recovery is very optimistic, as opposed to most hospital settings, and their location (Southern California) is ideal for someone in a wheelchair — mobility is so much easier in a mild climate.”

Noah is currently doing a lot of “active stretching” (incorporating controlled movement into each stretch) to help relieve muscle spasms and tightness, a problem that has plagued him since the injury.

“The biggest obstacle to my being ambulatory full time is my spasms, and subsequently tightness throughout my body,” Noah writes. By doing active stretching, he is “engaging” his muscles while increasing their range of motion.

“I also continue to work on taking steps — they are at their best when my body is relaxed from stretching out.” In fact, Noah has come a long way in the past two-and-a-half years. He lives on his own in an apartment with a roommate who also is enrolled in Project Walk. (With the help of extended family, Noah recently bought a home, which he and his roommate are in the process of moving into.) He gets around on his own in a wheelchair. He drives. He’s taking classes online at the University of Oregon, continuing to pursue his bachelor’s degree in Spanish. He is nearly done with all of his undergraduate requirements and plans to spend the summer in Eugene taking classes on campus, with the goal of graduating next spring.

But in Noah’s mind, he’s only just begun. Because he intends to walk again.

“My goal is to be a part of finding the cure,” he writes. “I believe the science is available to end paralysis and that I am only in my chair because politics, funding and public opinion are not on my side. I believe that curing paralysis benefits everyone in society, socially and economically, and that it can be done ethically and in the near future.”

Noah is part of a Web-based community called CareCure, which is an online database of people who share information and ideas about the most current research on spinal cord injury. “I try to educate myself as much as I can in hopes of convincing others around me that spinal cord injury is curable.”

Noah’s view is one he’s come to by, as he states, educating himself, and also through necessity.

“The first few months (read: the first year) after the accident were devastating,” he writes. “Many times I wished that the wheel had just killed me rather than leaving me in a permanent stasis between life and death (my mind alive and my body unable to respond to it).” Noah admits he was usually more upbeat around people than he actually felt.

“I can’t stand pessimism and trying to make other people feel better about what had happened to me also helped me feel better about what had happened,” he writes. “It was as though eliciting an optimistic response from others made me feel more positive about my future. Recovery by osmosis I guess. I also could simply not accept the prospect of not walking again.

“When I’d finally come down off all the drugs they’d given me in the acute stages of my injury, my new ‘reality’ was heartbreakingly unacceptable,” he continues. “In the hospital I would not have been able to survive without hope. I did not want to survive without believing that I could walk again. I’ve held onto that belief and stayed in touch with that acute hurt and devastation ever since. It is what drives me today.”

Noah will join others in talking about curing paralysis next week at a rally in Washington, D.C., organized by the nonprofit Cure Paralysis Now. (See sidebar.) On April 12, wheelchair activists, family members and other supporters will gather at the U.S. Capitol with the message that curing paralysis is now a realistic goal. Featured speakers include Dana Reeve, widow of actor Christopher Reeve.

“A march of this magnitude is especially significant when you consider our demographic,” Noah writes. “Many people in wheelchairs cannot even pack their own suitcase ... Life in a wheelchair costs more than it does for an able-bodied person, yet more than 100 people have dug into their own pockets to go to the Capitol and lobby for their wellbeing. I am extremely excited to be a part of this movement.”

Noah says he feels “very fortunate” to live in our time. “Ten years ago there was not as much basis for hope as there is now with regards to spinal cord injury.” He also has been fortunate, he says, both with functionality that has returned spontaneously, as well as with strong support — emotionally and financially — from family, friends and the Hood River community where he grew up. (Noah is a 1999 graduate of Hood River Valley High School.)

“By all accounts I got a raw deal, but I don’t dwell on that,” Noah writes. “Nonetheless I feel that people should know that as long as I am in a wheelchair times are desperate. Spinal cord injury is relentless in its assault on your body and mind. It invades every part of your life without permission. In the hospital I made a pledge to myself to never accept my injury or a lifetime of paralysis, despite what my surgeon told me.

“In a nutshell, I would like people to know that spinal cord injury is, in my opinion, about as close to hell as you can get, but that I have hope and faith that I will someday (soon) walk again. At this stage in history spinal cord injury is an unnecessary affliction, one that can be cured if scientists are given the funds to carry out their research. I would ask everyone to support efforts to cure paralysis, and research carefully any issues that at first appear controversial.”

Hood River News, Columbia Gorge Press and HRN Images

are all subsidiaries of Eagle Newspapers, Inc.

Copyright 2003 * Hood River, Oregon

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