Rick Hansen's work in raising awareness of spinal injuries 'remarkable'

In the 25 years since his original Man in Motion Tour, Canadian Paralympian and activist Rick Hansen has had an astonishing impact in raising awareness of spinal cord injury (SCI) -- his various foundations have raised $252 million for research and improving quality of life for those with an SCI.

Josh Dueck was a lifelong skier who had channelled his passion into coaching.

But in 2004, while doing a demonstration jump at the Silver Star Freestyle Ski Club in Vernon, B.C., Dueck crashed. He knew right away something was very wrong.

"When I regained consciousness a few minutes later it was definitely a whole new world, and a whole new reality," the 31-year-old Dueck said.

The accident made him a paraplegic. But it didn’t stop his athletic endeavours.

"If I was mad, sad, depressed, upset, it wasn’t going to give me [back] the use of the legs, so I decided to be as strong as I could and try to move forward and set some new goals," he said.

Dueck eventually became the first person in the world to perform a back flip on the sit-ski (also known as a monoski). He also won a silver medal in the men’s slalom, sitting, at the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver.

One of the things that inspired Dueck the most was meeting Paralympian Rick Hansen, who suffered a spinal cord injury (SCI) as a result of a car accident at age 15.

Hansen became famous in the mid-‘80s for the Man in Motion Tour, his 26-month world trek to raise awareness and funds for spinal cord research.

"Pretty much immediately after my accident happened, he came to the hospital to visit me and gave me some support and guidance, which was huge," Dueck said.

"It had such a positive impact on my outlook."

Re-tracing Man in Motion tour

For nearly a year now, Hansen has been re-tracing the Man in Motion tour. He started last August in Cape Spear, N.L. and is returning to Vancouver on May 22 — 25 years to the day he wrapped up the original tour in 1987.

Dueck says he remembers the first tour when it came through his hometown of Kimberley, B.C., even though he was only five years old at the time.

"I remember thinking the guy was wild," Dueck said, admitting he had "no idea the magnitude of the journey Rick was going on."

Rick’s original journey comprised over 40,000 kilometres — spanning 34 countries — and raised $26 million for spinal cord research. In the quarter-century since then, Hansen and his various foundations have raised an astounding $252 million for research and improving quality of life for those with an SCI.

Over the years, Dueck said he’s chatted with a number of neuroscientists and orthopedic surgeons and "word on the street is there is nobody that’s doing more in the world to make life better for spinal cord injuries than Rick Hansen," he said.

Josh Dueck became a paraplegic after a 2004 skiing accident, but went on to win a silver in the men's slalom, sitting, at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics. (Malcolm Carmichael/Alpine Canada )

Dr. Eve Tsai, a neurosurgeon and associate scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, concurs.

"He has brought awareness to spinal cord injuries and leveraged that awareness to public support, as well as government support, and experts in the field’s support," Tsai said.

Established SCI registry

SCI research has come a long way since Rick’s original journey. Tsai, who recently presented research at the 2012 Global SCI Conference in Vancouver, said Hansen and his foundations have played a big part in creating things such as the SCI registry.

The registry collects data from every single person with an SCI, so their information can be used as a resource for researchers who want to better understand the problems associated with the condition and to improve their treatments.

"As a group, being able to keep track, follow through and take meaningful action is a remarkable achievement," Tsai said.

Tsai said Hansen has been "remarkable in drawing a continuum" of support and resources, and has "created the infrastructure that is needed to make major progress."

According to Statistics Canada, 86,000 Canadians currently live with an SCI and an estimated 4,300 new cases are diagnosed every year.

Although much progress has been made in spinal cord research, the injuries are still devastating to a person’s quality of life. Canadians with an SCI are re-hospitalized 260 per cent more often than non-SCI Canadians, and their life expectancy is reduced by 15 to 30 years.

Physical obstacles remain

Then there are the physical obstacles that accompany the injuries, such as inaccessible buildings and the cost of treatment and care. The lifetime financial requirements for someone with an SCI can range from $1.6 million to $3 million, depending on the level of paralysis.

It is also estimated that more than 60 per cent of people with an SCI are unemployed.

The Rick Hansen Foundation has lent its support to other groups who work to make life better for people with an SCI, including the Canadian Paraplegic Association and the Neil Squire Foundation, which offers assistance to those those living with an SCI and their families.

The support has resulted in the allocation of wheelchairs and lifts as well as necessary home modifications that allow patients to live independently.

The foundation has also set up PLAN@T, an online rating tool that allows people with an SCI and their families to review the accessibility of buildings and public spaces worldwide, using a rating system similar to customer reviews on travel websites.

Tsai said thanks to better research and other resources greatly assisted by the Rick Hansen Foundation, people with an SCI are living better lives.

Dueck said he wasn’t ever down on himself as a result of his injury, and one reason was Rick Hansen and his optimism.

Dueck adds, "Gandhi says it best: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’"