Wings For Life Spinal Cord Research Foundation - Charity Begins At Home

Cat Tales

By Brian Catterson, Photography by Mike Doran, Tim Olson

It happened 15 years ago, but I remember it as though it were yesterday.In those days before e-mail, a hastily scribbled fax from Grand Prix correspondent Mat Oxley relayed the horrible news: "Bad day at the races: Wayne is in hospital with no feeling from the chest down." Unbelievably, three time FIM 500cc World Champion Wayne Rainey had been paralyzed in a racing accident.

Last March lightning struck again when former AMA Motocross Champion Doug Henry was paralyzed at a supermoto race in Florida. Other racers have suffered similar careerending injuries in the interim, but Wayne and Doug were two of my heroes, as gutsy and determined as anyone who's ever ridden a motorcycle, so their accidents hit closer to home than most.

What's an injured racer to do? Charitable organizations such as the Clayton Foundation and Road 2 Recovery can help them defray their medical bills and outfit their houses with ramps and vehicles with hand controls. Roadracing World's AirFence Fund goes one better in attempting to prevent such injuries in the first place. But who's there for real-world motorcyclists? And who's funding research for a cure?

For decades, American motorcyclists have held toy runs to benefit organizations such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation. Good press for bikers and deserving charities, no doubt about it-there but for the grace of God and all that. But at the risk of sounding self-serving,where's the benefit to motorcyclists? Would it be too much to divert some of those monies to fund research into brain and spinal injuries-two of any rider's biggest fears?

Fortunately, there is now one such organization. The new Red Bullbacked Wings For Life Spinal Cord Research Foundation was founded by former motocross world champion Heinz Kinigadner, whose brother and son were both paralyzed in dirtbike accidents. "We want paraplegia to become curable," the Austrian says. "We don't want anyone to have to get around in a wheelchair anymore."

According to the firm's head researcher, Dr. Jan Schwab, much progress has been made in understanding what causes paralysis and possible paths to spinal-cord regeneration-paths, incidentally, that do not necessarily include the use of controversial stem cells. As he explains on the foundation's website (www.wingsforlife.com), spinal-cord injuries don't end with the initial trauma. The lesion tends to expand, damaging the neurofibers that relay information from the brain to body and limbs. Such injuries also destroy the immune system, so it is thought that preventing infection may allow neuroregeneration. It's worked in animal testing; clinical trials on humans are next.

Last September, Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett made headlines when he broke his neck during an NFL game. Initial reports described his injuries as life-threatening, but after successful surgery and an experimental procedure wherein his core temperature was lowered to prevent the spinal-cord trauma from spreading, he walked into a game just three months later. He may never play football again, but he'll be able to lead a normal life.

Hopefully, someday in the nottoo- distant future, this and other such procedures will be commonplace, and motorcyclists won't have to worry about paralysisever again.

By Brian Catterson
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