June 27, 2023, marked a significant milestone in the life of Rick Hansen. It was 50 years ago when Rick, then a 15-year-old, was thrown from the bed of a pickup truck on a dirt road in northern British Columbia, resulting in a spinal cord injury (SCI).
This event shaped the course of Rick’s life, propelling him towards a lifelong pursuit of social change, advocating for accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities. It also marks his passion for enabling the world’s best medical researchers to pursue their work in providing the best care for those with SCI and the quest for a cure.
As Rick visited the crash site for the first time, he reflected on memories of his journey with vivid clarity. While the world recognizes him today as the Man In Motion – the man who wheeled around the globe to raise awareness for people with disabilities and to seek a cure for paralysis, it is essential to understand the immense effort that it took even to start down this remarkable life path.
While his peers celebrated their 16th birthdays by getting their learner’s licenses, Rick celebrated by sitting up in a regular bed at the Royal Columbian Hospital. This personal triumph encapsulated his determination to regain independence and break free from the confines of perceived limitations. However, Rick’s dream of walking again was shattered when he came across his medical records and realized his new identity was described by two words: acute paraplegic.
After coming to terms with his diagnosis, Rick made a conscious choice to prove his spirit was stronger than any label. Rick discovered a passion for adaptive sports, excelling in wheelchair basketball and racing. His perseverance made him the first student with a disability to graduate from School of Physical Education (now called Human Kinetics) at the University of British Columbia.
Rick’s dream was not just about personal achievements but also about enabling advancements that could make a significant difference to SCI research, healthcare, and the quest for a cure. This was also a big part of the Man In Motion World Tour, not only to show the world that people with disabilities are more than the sum of their differences and that removing barriers is pivotal for enabling all to pursue their own aspirations but also to establish a foundation upon which SCI progress could flourish.
But even Rick couldn’t know the impact he would have on SCI when he wheeled across the finish line in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Setting the Stage for the Best
Since the conclusion of the Tour, Rick and the Rick Hansen Foundation (RHF) have helped raise more than $250 million for SCI research and treatment. Through fostering collaboration, engaging individuals with SCI, and supporting cutting-edge research, Rick and the Foundation are dedicated to working alongside various partners to accelerate the translation of research into tangible, real-life benefits.
The latest numbers show that 90% of what is known about SCI has been developed since the conclusion of the Man In Motion World Tour. That includes a 30% improvement in paralysis, meaning that 30% of those who have sustained a spinal cord injury have recovered from their injury to walk again. The goal, of course, is to achieve a 100% success rate so that paralysis is one day a thing of the past.
To better understand the complex needs of people who sustain a traumatic SCI, the Rick Hansen Spinal Cord Injury Registry (RHSCIR) was created in 2004. Rick teamed up with renowned spine surgeon and researcher Dr. Marcel Dvorak to develop RHSCIR to collect an internationally standardized set of clinical information to help inform clinicians of beneficial interventions and encourage a shift towards evidence-based practices.
RHSCIR is now located in 15 hospitals across Canada, and according to research, individuals who are admitted early to a hospital that specializes in SCI care by a specialized SCI team have better outcomes compared to people who are not admitted within 48 hours to an SCI-specialized hospital without specialized care.
As Rick learned more about SCI care and practices, he realized that many leaders and experts in the field were already working hard across Canada and around the world, often in complete isolation and with inadequate support.
Thanks to the ongoing support of governments, organizations, individuals and generous donors, Rick and RHF, along with key partners, are actively bridging this gap to spearhead groundbreaking initiatives to advance SCI research, revolutionize care practices, and improve the lives of individuals living with SCI. This long-standing commitment has yielded remarkable achievements, shaping the trajectory of SCI research and establishing a legacy of hope and progress.
Some notable accomplishments include:
- The Creation of CORD - In the early days, Rick and the Foundation were part of a process to create an integrated SCI research strategy and raised funds to provide grants in support of researchers and clinicians across Canada. Part of Rick’s vision was to support Dr. Steeves and his team of collaborators to create a world-class centre of excellence focused on SCI research. He worked with Dr. John Steeves, who created the Collaboration on Research Discoveries (CORD), a UBC-based research centre focused on finding a cure for paralysis after SCI. Significant resources from the MIMWT were granted to support the research at CORD. By 2000, CORD’s vision and mandate soon grew much broader than that of a regional research centre. CORD was renamed the International Collaboration on Repair Discoveries (ICORD). The organization is now one of the most interdisciplinary SCI research programs in the world, pioneering novel strategies to enhance recovery and the quality of life after SCI.
- Establishing Partnerships to Create Change - To further strengthen SCI research, RHF secured funding partnerships to establish five SCI research endowments at UBC. These include the:
- BC Neurotrauma Professorship Endowment, which supports a tenure-track faculty appointment and research in neurotrauma that addresses the challenges of injuries leading to central nervous system deficits, including motor and or sensory dysfunction, cognitive impairment, emotional difficulties and behavioral problems.
- Edie Ehlers Endowment, which supports RHF’s mission to encourage research for a cure for paralysis after SCI and to create accessible and inclusive communities for people with SCI.
- Lyall Knott BC Neurotrauma Professorship Endowment. This endowment, held at the Faculty of Medicine at UBC, supports a professorship and research in neurotrauma.
- Cordula and Guntar Paetzold Chair in Spinal Cord Clinical Research Endowment. Jointly appointed to UBC and Vancouver General Hospital with the intent to develop clinical research at ICORD, the focus of this Chair is to accelerate research in line with RHF’s mission of supporting advancements to improve care after SCI and pursue a cure.
- John and Jenny Ryan BC Leadership Chair in Spinal Cord Research. This endowment supports the director of ICORD who is responsible for engaging in world class SCI research.
- Creation of the BSCC - Driven by a shared vision to advance SCI research and care, Rick Hansen, RHF, ICORD, Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, and UBC, embarked on an ambitious endeavor to establish a global center of excellence in SCI research. This commitment to collaboration and innovation led to the realization of the Blusson Spinal Cord Centre (BSCC), an extraordinary facility in Vancouver, B.C., that has transformed the landscape of SCI research. Crucial funding from the federal and provincial government, Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, and Dr. Stewart and Marilyn Blusson, enabled the construction of the BSCC. The BSCC also became home to ICORD and the multidisciplinary Brenda and David McLean Integrated Spine Clinic. Additionally, it served as the headquarters for the SCI Solutions Network (SCISN), later evolving into the renowned Rick Hansen Institute (RHI) and currently known as the Praxis Spinal Cord Institute.
The Dream Continues
For decades, Rick Hansen and RHF have been steadfast in our commitment to accelerate progress in SCI research, including improving the quality of life for people with SCI and accelerating progress on research to find a cure. Through fostering collaboration, engaging individuals with SCI, and supporting cutting-edge research, we work alongside our partners to unite those with a common purpose: accelerating the translation of research into tangible, real-life benefits. This goal has been made possible through the invaluable collaboration and support from countless individuals, including our exceptional donors – the Many In Motion.
Today, our pursuit continues as we work with the community to facilitate a comprehensive BC SCI Health Care Strategy that can serve as a template for provinces and regions worldwide. While there is much to celebrate as we note the progress made during the last 50 years, our journey is far from complete, and our aspirations propel us forward as we shape a tomorrow where no barriers limit the potential of those living with SCI.