In my mind I am a leader.
It’s easy to picture Matt Courson in front of a crowd - his voice strong, his smile bright - spreading a message of determination and hope. What’s surprising is his age. But what’s not apparent at first are the many obstacles he’s overcome.
Matt is his message, in every sense.
One April evening two years ago, Matt climbed on his four-wheeler to make the short trip to visit a friend. He never made it. He can’t remember much about the ride, but he knows he went over a 20-foot embankment. When he came to after the crash, he couldn’t move.
"I laid out there all night calling for help," he says. It was only the next morning that a fireman found him and took him to the hospital. His jaw was broken in two places, his back bone was shattered, and he underwent an eight-hour surgery to repair the damage to his spine.
In a matter of moments, Matt’s life had been turned upside down. Doctors gave his injury a classification of ASIA A complete, meaning he would essentially never recover any activity below his spinal cord injury. Walking was out of the question.
"I would be sitting in my chair, watching other people as they got up and walked and wonder how you would do it," he says.
But Matt was determined not to let his injury get the best of him. Even when he was lying immobile in a hospital bed, the first thing he told his dad was, "I am not going to let this injury beat me. I am going to make a difference."
In 2007, more than a year after his injury, Matt came to the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at the Kennedy Krieger Institute to work with specialists whom he calls "some of the most knowledgeable spinal cord injury doctors in the world."
What makes the center different is its commitment to the philosophy that with the right combination of therapies, recovery is possible even many months or years after an injury. The Center’s Advanced Restoration Therapies use techniques that have shown great promise in helping individuals with chronic spinal cord injuries recover sensation, movement, and independence.
While he was at the Institute, Matt’s therapy included gait training and daily sessions on a bike that employs Functional Electronic Stimulation (FES). With FES, a computer sends electrical messages telling a person’s legs to contract and relax, just as the brain normally would.
When Matt left Kennedy Krieger he was reevaluated as an ASIA C incomplete injury, giving him greater hope of recovery - he was even able to walk 300 feet with leg braces and the use of a walker. His therapists taught him how to continue his therapies at home in Arkansas and now he is able to stand up by himself for a short time.
Looking back, Matt says he knew right away that Kennedy Krieger was different.
"The first day I knew there was hope. There are a lot of heroes here," Matt says. "The therapists went the extra mile do to everything they could to help me get back on my feet."
Now, in between speaking engagements and therapy sessions, Matt is finishing up his undergraduate degree online. His dream is to go on to law school and then make a career for himself in politics.
"My goal now is to help others," he says. "My injury just happens to be a spinal cord injury, but everyone goes through something like this in life."