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Publish date: Jan 10, 2013

Luther’s Chris Norton turns personal setback into community gain

By Brian Hendrickson

Outsiders may soon look at the RT300 rehab bicycle sitting in Iowa’s Winneshiek Medical Center therapy room and just see a bike. Even if they learn of its $27,564 price tag, they still may only see an expensive bike.

Chris Norton

But anyone familiar with Chris Norton’s story will look to that bike and see a journey, one of smashed expectations and elevated, selfless dreams. They’ll see that RT300 and remember how a similar bike, purchased with funds from the NCAA’s catastrophic-injury insurance program, helped Norton recover from a severe spinal cord injury suffered in a Luther College football game in 2010. Doctors gave Norton 3 percent odds of regaining feeling below the neck after that injury. But today he can stand independently for several minutes and negotiate the Luther campus between his four classes independently.

Along the way, his remarkable recovery gave birth to Norton’s new goal of helping other patients overcome similar injuries.

The rehab bicycle is the first step on what Norton hopes will become a long, meaningful journey. He is still only a junior at Luther, but he is also the head of his own nonprofit organization, SCI CAN, and an effective philanthropist who pulled together $12,000 in donations before his first official fundraiser and completed his foundation’s initial goal – purchasing the RT300 – in its first six months of existence.

“My whole motivation behind this is to give everyone else an opportunity to have the same success story I have by raising the money to purchase the nicer equipment that I had, and to put it in a public facility that anyone can use,” Norton said. “I’ve been unbelievably blessed. I look at it as a positive to use the equipment I had. It’s scary to think of not being able to have used it.”

Norton gained those advantages because his injury occurred during an NCAA athletics event. In that October game during his freshman season at Luther, Norton ran at full speed to defend a third-quarter kickoff, lunged after the ball carrier and caught his head on the player’s knee, snapping it backward.

Norton assumed the lost feeling below his neck was only a stinger. A multiple letter-winner in football (he was voted Hardest Hitter), basketball and track at Bondurant-Farrar High School outside Des Moines, he’d felt a whole side of his body go numb from previous hits. But this time the feeling didn’t return.

The collision violently hyperextended Norton’s neck, shifting two bones and compressing the spinal cord. His father, Terry Norton, knew it was serious when Chris didn’t move: He’d watched his son finish a basketball game after getting head-butted in the face, and a football game after breaking two ribs. So when Chris stayed down, Terry and Chris’ mother, Deb, rushed to the field for the first time in their son’s career. The game stopped for 25 minutes. A hushed crowd watched paramedics secure Chris to a backboard and whisk him away in an ambulance. The local hospital was arranging helicopter transport to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., by the time Chris arrived.

As the family awaited the transport, Chris’ sister, Alex, tried to comfort her brother as he closed his eyes.

“You don’t have to go to sleep,” she said.

“I don’t want to be awake to know what’s going on,” he replied.

As the Nortons prayed for a positive prognosis, the Luther community mobilized. Norse coach Mike Durnin and his wife, Karen, made quick trips home and to Wal-Mart to gather supplies for the Nortons, and rushed to the Mayo Clinic. Five teammates from Chris’ residence hall drove up and spent the first night at the hospital with him. NFL and college coaches, Luther alumni and players from rival teams flooded the clinic with cards, baseball caps and other shows of support.

“You see the true character of people in situations like this,” Durnin said. “And the character that I witnessed and the outpouring toward Chris and his family is there are a lot of great people in the world. People who truly care.”

Chris became their team, and they cheered every victory. They shared tears of joy when Chris emerged from surgery able to flop his left arm, and more cheers on Thanksgiving when he wiggled his toes. While Chris was focusing on his recovery, his home community in Bondurant, Iowa, donated the labor – using materials paid for by the catastrophic-injury insurance program – to construct a wheel chair ramp into the family’s home and a roll-in shower. Volunteers painted the kitchen and organized fundraisers to help offset travel expenses.

But once Chris started regaining feeling in his limbs, his biggest advantage to making a remarkable recovery became the NCAA’s catastrophic-injury insurance. The plan provided a $20 million lifetime supplement to his family’s insurance plan, resources which helped the Nortons purchase a wheelchair-accessible van to drive him to the rehab facility at the Mayo Clinic and purchase his personal RT300 bike. Those benefits allowed Chris to make rehab his new sport, and he worked like the football team’s slogan preached: “Be 1-0 in every day and every way.” So a day at a time he pushed himself through extra exercises, increasingly extensive stretches on his RT300 and, eventually, straining through longer periods standing upright.

That work ethic has been key to his recovery. As a neck injury heals, the nerves must be retrained to communicate signals from the brain to the body’s muscles. Only repeated stimulation through movement can help it fully heal, a daily process of stepping inches at a time and letting them add up to miles. It’s a process athletes are trained to handle from their earliest years.

“In many respects,” Terry said, “he’s trained his whole life for this.”

But Chris said he owed much of his success to the facilities and equipment to which the NCAA’s insurance helped give him access. He worked out three times per week on his RT300 before heading to classes, then on his days off headed to the Mayo Clinic for four hours of rehab followed by a 12-mile ride on his leg bike. And the results are unmistakable: He can now stand unassisted for up to 10 minutes, rides horses in rehab, walking short distances with the assistance of a walker, and he navigated the Luther campus independently in the fall while taking a 13-credit course load.

But while Chris was tackling each obstacle, he kept seeing other patients stagnate in their recovery as their insurance coverage ran out and they struggled to gain access to the same equipment that helped his recovery.
So when Chris received an unexpected donation after speaking at a fundraiser last summer and was asked what he would do with the money, the idea of starting a nonprofit organization was seeded. By September, SCI CAN had raised $12,000 – nearly halfway to its first goal of an RT300 – and before Christmas it was ready to make its first donation to the Winneshiek Medical Center for the purchase of the rehab bike. There it is estimated to benefit 40 patients a year free of charge.

“He’s just so motivated,” Terry said. “When he was an athlete, he was only 6-feet, 180 pounds. In high school he wasn’t bigger or faster than anyone else. He had success, but only because he was driven. Now he’s taken that and funneled it into this foundation.”

And Chris is dreaming big. The RT300 purchase was the first step in his goal to improve the equipment at rehab centers in Iowa, so patients in the state who often travel several hours to find rehab equipment have closer options to help their recovery. After that, Chris hopes SCI CAN will raise enough funds to build a neuro recovery home at the Mayo Clinic, where patients can stay during extended rehab.

And from there? Chris isn’t dreaming small, but his approach is measured and deliberate, just like his rehab. It’s a series of small steps, which Chris hopes will lead him to a position where he can provide other patients with the support that made a difference for himself.

“There’s just such a need,” Norton said. “I’m really motivated and excited about it. I think it’s going to be a really fun thing. It’s going to make a huge impact on a lot of different lives. And it’s something that really needs to be done.”

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