Overcoming the odds
Chris Norton faces spinal cord injury with hard work, determination and help from Mayo
On Oct. 16, 2010, Chris Norton's life changed forever. He sprinted onto the Luther College football field in Decorah, Iowa, ready for a special teams play. But, a fateful tackle ended the play and Norton's football career.
Now it was time for another team to take the field. Skilled athletic trainers and EMTs carefully executed a well-rehearsed game plan — getting Norton to Winneshiek Medical Center, part of Mayo Clinic Health System, and having him transported by air to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Assessing the damage
At Mayo Clinic, X-rays revealed what everyone feared: Norton had a fractured neck and compressed spinal cord. He had no feeling from his shoulders down.
"I hyperextended my neck and dislocated/fractured my C3 and C4. So, they had to put screws in to lock the bones together and straighten it back out," says Norton.
It was the middle of the night when Norton had the three-hour surgery that repaired his spine. While the surgery was deemed as successful as it could be, physicians at Mayo Clinic gave Norton a grim prognosis. He had only a 3 percent chance of regaining movement below the injury site.
Progress and physical therapy
"One of my first PT sessions was sitting in my chair — just tolerating sitting in my chair was part of my physical therapy. So, I've come a long way in that sense," says Norton, holding his head high during a videotaped interview.
"A few weeks after Norton's accident, it became clear that his injury was healing, and his injury type was reclassified as an incomplete injury," says Ronald K. Reeves, M.D., Mayo Clinic Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation. "Still, the odds were stacked against him. But Chris, who's known for his work ethic and love of competition, took the challenge and isn't stopping. I'm seeing improvement all the time."
Partial mobility in all four limbs
Within three months, after weeks of intensive physical therapy and sheer determination, Norton overcame the odds and regained partial mobility in all four limbs.
"My first movement was a little shoulder raise and then every day I could feel just a tad more than I could before," reports Norton. "My first leg movement was my toe — that was on Thanksgiving . From there, it just slowly picked up — different movements...the hard work in sports and school has definitely carried over to hard work in therapy."
A great assist
Norton's success at overcoming his injury has everything to do with strength, courage and a team full of people. A powerful, compassionate network of family, friends and even strangers supported Norton during his journey.
Norton's father, Terry, says, "We want to say a special thanks to our therapists. They are not only skilled at what they do, but they bring a positive, upbeat attitude to work every day. Even though therapy is very challenging, they make it fun."
Norton agrees with his father. "They've made it a lot of fun being here. It could be pretty slow and not very exciting, but they make every day pretty exciting. They get more excited than me when I do something new or do something better than before. They love to see improvement. It's definitely been fun and they've been very nice."
Fun for Norton included a trip with two therapists to see the band Rascal Flatts in concert. Thanks to a connection between the band and one of Norton's doctors, he and his sister were even invited backstage.
Physical and occupational therapists became Norton's new coaches — working with him up to five hours a day.
Lori Eaton is one of several Mayo physical therapists who has been working with Norton for over a year. "Initially, the outcomes they were giving him were pretty bleak, and he's just amazed all of us," says Eaton. "He's an athlete. He was trained to compete. This is the biggest competition of his life — and he's winning."
"We are really pleased with how his therapists continue to challenge him and push him," says his father.
Norton isn't afraid of being pushed. "I want the most improvement I can possibly get and I'm going to work especially hard to so I can achieve all of that. It's been a bumpy road, but it's been good," he says.
In addition to intense therapy sessions, Norton had his own regiment of exercises that he did each day — on his own or with the help of family and friends.
His father says, "The doctors at Mayo told Chris he was one of the hardest workers they have ever seen come through rehab at Mayo. They are all very impressed with his hard work and determination."
The Mayo Effect
Norton and his family felt the Mayo Effect throughout his care.
"The true secret to the value of [Mayo Clinic] is the kindness of their staff. We mean that from the bottom of our hearts. They don't just provide the best care possible, but they are kind in the process," says Terry Norton. "The old saying of treating people the way you want to be treated is practiced here. We have had so many nurses and doctors that have crossed Chris' path, and then later came back just to say hi and see how he is doing. This is a special place...Our surgeons, therapists, nurses, are all the best and have just been amazing."
CBS "Courage in Sports" Award
For his bravery, Norton was named the winner of America's Choice Honor for the CBS "Courage in Sports" award. He and his family appeared on the CBS Early Show to receive the honor. Norton was selected after an eight-week Facebook voting competition that tallied nearly 1 million votes.
A CAN-do attitude
Right after Chris Norton was born his parents realized his initials spelled CAN and they said "Chris CAN do anything!" That statement has never been truer than it is today. Norton is back at Luther College where he completed his first semester of classes and was made an honorary captain for the opening home game of the season. He continues daily physical therapy so he can regain as much movement and feeling as his injury will allow.