CURE NATION: It hasn’t been an easy journey for United Spinal’s 2021 Advocate of the Year, Natalie Barnhard. She won United Spinal’s award for her tireless advocacy, especially her consistent work on The Roll on Capitol Hill. Ever since a 600-pound exercise machine fell on her in 2004 cutting short her career as a physical therapist assistant and licensed massage therapist, Natalie has gone from therapist and teacher to patient to starting a nonprofit to advocate and now to an entrepreneur in pursuit of her dream. We caught up with her at home in upstate New York where she is launching The Natalie Barnhard Center for Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation and Recovery through her Motion Project Foundation; the fulfillment of these goals. The story is in how she got here.
“In the beginning, my dream was to provide this center for the SCI community, so they didn’t feel like when they left the hospital they were stuck!”
Natalie explains. “Looking at a map of activity-based recovery centers within the United States, you can see that there’s nothing in the Western New York area. When I was injured, I had no choice. I didn’t want to, but I knew that I had to leave home if I was going to get better. I couldn’t go anywhere within even an hour’s distance of my home to do intense, long-term rehab.”
If the crush of the 600-pound falling object was the first obstacle, leaving home was the second. “I came down in a medical jet to do additional therapy at The Shephard Center in Atlanta. I got put on the waitlist for Beyond Therapy, an activity-based recovery program there. Who knew I’d end up living in an extended stay hotel for 4 years, just to do rehab?” Natalie then moved into a condo for 4 more years before returning home to Buffalo in 2015.
Those eight long years were worth it. Shepherd Center and the Beyond Therapy program are world-renowned, and for good reason, says Natalie.
“All my therapists and trainers down there heard me. I kept saying, ‘I’m going to start my own center.’” Initially, Natalie hired a consulting firm to help get her dream started “because, as my mother likes to say, they got the train out of the station. It was difficult to know where to even begin and they guided me through those first steps. However, when they seemed to want to take over and take my dream in another direction I’d had enough. Then eventually my mom said, ‘We have been in this together since the beginning, so let’s do this together!”
It was a great next step, but Natalie found that without Shephard’s constant emphasis on exercise and health, her body began to fail.
”I came back home to Buffalo to do this work, grow my non-profit and start my recovery center. Then, due to the lack of exercising, and not being part of a SCI community anymore, I got severe pneumonia twice, numerous UTI’s, and battled with depression and more pain. I just felt so much weaker. It’s crazy how beneficial working out really is.”
Motion Project Purpose and Path
Still, Natalie realized first-hand that life after SCI isn’t just about working out, nor just about nutrition, emotional support or any other one thing. It’s the combination of them all, and that’s what her center will offer.
“Now I’m in a good emotional and physical place and I can see what Motion Project needs to be. God has truly shown me my purpose and directed my path.” Natalie takes a deep breath and dives in again.
“My goal is to take the skills I learned in Atlanta and my background as a therapist to share with other people that they need to stay active, and to help them get the rehabilitation and resources they need.”
If at first Motion Project sounds like just another gym, Natalie knows better from her own journey. “After you are in a wheelchair it is vital that you are around other people who are going through the same thing. The friendships are a big part of healing, growth, and maintenance. We just want to get people out of their houses to be with other people who are like them.
“I want to create a community here where everyone understands each other and supports each other in their journey.”
The Grand Opening was to have been last Spring, but Covid changed their schedule. “We just opened in June of 2021 to begin seeing clients and are scheduled to have a grand opening event September 8th & 9th. September is spinal cord awareness month, so it’s perfect!” After what she’s been through, Natalie is able to look at Covid as just another temporary setback.
“Unfortunately, all of our grants we had applied for last year were denied because everything went toward Covid relief. The biggest things we need now are funding through grants and donations. And volunteers! And energy from the local community! And people to spread the word! And…” Natalie trails off, laughing at the enormity of it all.
“We did our first evaluation today, he’s only 23, and he really doesn’t want to go out. He doesn’t understand any of it yet. We go slowly and make suggestions. Eventually he’ll discover that he can laugh with people here, that this is a place where you can joke with the only people who will really understand.” Natalie’s voice slows, taking on a distant quality.
“The hardest thing facing him now is that you have to learn how to live like this. Like me, I was really angry the second year when the reality of my injury hit me, dynamics between friends and family changed, and my boyfriend of two years left. There were times when it was hard to know if I would ever be ok, or ever be happy again. It’s important to remember that everybody heals on their own timeline.”
In addition to the hurdles a newly injured person has to overcome, there are so many unanswered questions. From the time you wake up in the hospital you are asked your opinion on things you’ve never thought of in your life: wheelchairs, commodes, home modifications, orthotics … and catheters. It is only in retrospect that you realize the importance of those decisions.
About Cure Medical
“As I learned more, and became more integrated in the SCI world, I found that Cure Medical is a great company. I love that they give back to the community and all the advocacy they do, sharing information and stories about other people. I love that about them.” Natalie says happily.
“It’s just amazing how God is working. I really feel that this center is going to be an incredible thing and really serve this community. We want to offer peer support, not just for the people in the chair but for caregivers and family members as well.
As Natalie describes her brainchild, Motion Project, you can hear the passion that won her the Advocacy Award. “Ultimately, I want all people to have access to rehabilitation and recovery. Not everyone can leave their homes or towns or has the funding for rehab, but I don’t feel that anybody should ever be denied the opportunity to get better. My long-term goal is to create an endowment, so we never have to turn someone away for the inability to pay for these services.”
“People need what we do here. I need what we do here. It’s all just so exciting!”
Motion Project Foundation: The Natalie Barnhard Center for Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation and Recovery inspires those with spinal cord injuries to rise above their challenges by promoting physical independence; and providing emotional support and spiritual healing to foster hope for a successful and fulfilling life.
A place for people to come to recover after a life-changing spinal cord injury. We never stop moving forward to bring the best outcomes for individuals as they progress through their journey toward recovery, providing state-of-the-art equipment, exceptionally trained therapists, research, care navigation, advocacy and support.
You can reach Natalie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Motion Project: The Natalie Barnhard Center for Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation and Recovery is located at 4820 Genesee St, Buffalo, NY 14225 and is accepting new clients.
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