Paralysis, Let's Find a Cure

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

The Paralysis Project of America hosts a dinner every year about this time, a fundraiser, at which they honor four athletes whom they call "Legends of Sport". This year's event was this past Saturday night and the Legends this time around were baseball Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, Ron Turcotte, the great jockey who rode the great Secretariat to his Triple Crown in 1973, Cobi Jones, the star speedster of Major League Soccer, and yours truly. Silky smooth broadcaster Vin Scully received an award at the dinner as well.

Scully introduced us to Jackie Robinson when he made human rights history. I headed downtown with a friend, so looking forward to hearing some of Vin Scully's stories. I couldn't wait to hang with Dave Winfield, one of the all-time naturals. Winfield was offered big-time contracts in pro football, basketball, and baseball and wound up giving us twenty years of thrills on the diamond.

There was a surfer at the Legends dinner, too. Jesse Billauer, only 27 years old. We saw footage of Jesse slicing down the faces of monstrous waves off the Hawaiian coast. He was lithe and quick-footed, incredibly graceful, at one with the wave. He was a big personality, a draw for sponsors, a magnet for girls.

The video faded to black and Jesse was lifted onto the stage. He is now a quadriplegic. He told us how it happened. It was a beautifully sunny early Southern California morning, the waves glassy and large. He paddled out, devil-may-care, with a couple of buddies, to do what he loved most. A wave lifted him and spat him out, like a fragile eggshell, onto the ocean floor. In an instant, his neck was broken, his spinal cord severed, his life changed radically. And forever.

As he told this gripping tale, the room went silent. How can any of us fathom losing our freedom to move our bodies in a thousandth of a second? How can a young man, in his prime, a super athlete, adjust to the life sentence of quadriplegia?

Well, the room wasn't exactly silent. There was a woman at my dinner table whose teenage son just two months ago had an accident and is now facing the same life sentence of Jesse Billauer.

The scenario is new for her, for her son, for their family. She started to cry, then to sob. Many of us went to her, held her.

And Jesse spoke on.

He reminded us that we have no idea what tomorrow will bring and thus we better damn well live today to the fullest. He said he spends no time regretting or even remembering what was because that's not real for him now. He told us he is happy to be alive, that many people love him, and that Life Rolls On. As a matter of fact, he heads up an inspirational non-profit organization for spinal cord injury victims called the Life Rolls On Foundation. Jesse's face is handsome. I bet he's still a magnet for the girls. His smile beams a powerful ray of light. And he says his smile is biggest when he rides the 10-footers, when his friends strap him to a surfboard and push him down the wave, toward the shore, terrified that he will flip and they won't be able to get to him in time.

We walked into that dinner with an idea of brushing elbows with a few Legends of Sport. Yet all of us left touched by the courage of Jesse Billauer. The founder of the Paralysis Project reported a new stem-cell study whereby 27 rats had their spinal cords severed and just eight weeks after stem cell therapy, 26 walked normally. This is a tragedy we can actually reverse. We must speak up. We must let Washington know that babies don't give their lives to harvest stem cells. We can cure paralysis. If you hugged that inconsolable mother Saturday night, or felt Jesse Billauer's unspeakably brave spirit, you would take every step in your power to allow these young people to take their own steps again.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad