Shining light on paralysis research
College sweethearts JON NEUSTADT ’87 and JULIE FRICK NEUSTADT ’88 were anticipating some life changes in August 2003. Their youngest, 5-year-old Adam, would be heading off to kindergarten, and that would mean a new routine for the family of four. From Naperville, they headed southwest to Missouri to vacation with Julie’s family at Table Rock Lake. What followed during a carefree afternoon excursion set the course for a “new normal” that meant not just expected life changes, but life-altering ones.
Julie was swimming toward her family’s boat when a group of boys leaped without looking from a rock ledge 15 feet above. One of the jumpers landed on Julie, shattering her spine (T4 and T5) and paralyzing her from the chest down. After two weeks at a Springfield, Missouri, hospital where her spine was fused, Julie spent six weeks at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
One of the most important skills she mastered there was driving. “I learned to drive on Lake Shore Drive with hand controls,” remarks Julie, who had worked in Chicago for AT&T before she and Jon became parents. “I don’t think I’d ever driven on Lake Shore before.” Operating her specially equipped van has enabled Julie to transport Adam, now 14, and her daughter Laura, 16, to their games and activities.
Julie is also grateful for a Restorative Therapies bike that employs electrodes to stimulate her legs. “I have great resources, insurance, and support. Not everybody does,” she comments, prefacing an explanation of why she helped start the Chicago chapter of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation five years ago. “Their motto is ‘Today’s care — tomorrow’s cure.’ There are many promising therapies being developed. It’s become a popular field for scientists to get into.”
Visit christopherreeve.org for more information.
The Neustadts and the family company, Neuco Inc., were honored with the Reeve Friendship Award last November at an annual fundraiser. “The Chicago chapter has raised close to $1 million over the past four years,” Julie reports. A portion of those funds has come from Team Reeve, a Chicago Marathon team.
“I don’t expect to be running again, but I do hope for some relief from nerve pain and spasticity as a result of the research. Progress being made toward regeneration is encouraging,” comments the courageous 46-year-old. While she considers herself a private person, Julie hopes to shine light on the need for funding paralysis research and outreach. “A survey done recently by the Reeve Foundation showed that the number of people living with paralysis is higher than it was thought. There are 5.6 million people in the U.S. who have some form of paralysis, and over 1.2 million of those are spinal cord injuries,” she says.
Asked what she would like people to know about living with paralysis, Julie shares a favorite quote: “It teaches you to appreciate what you have before time forces you to miss what you had.” Seeing the challenges she faces, Julie believes, has given the couple’s children a different outlook on disability. They refer to her enthusiastically as the best mom on wheels and the best mom, period.
Julie and Jon recently celebrated their 23rd anniversary. Years ago both were certified in scuba diving, and last year Julie went diving again for the first time since her injury. They also enjoy boating with family and friends on Lake Holiday near Sandwich. Julie always looks forward to get-togethers with six fellow 1988 Bradley grads — all Chi Omega friends who live in the suburbs. For their 40th birthdays, they shared a weekend getaway to Arizona. “I appreciate it when people treat me like I’m still me, but acknowledge that life has changed.”
— Gayle Erwin McDowell ’77