HOUSTON – (April 25, 2013) – About 420 guests eagerly joined in the “great adventure” of keynote speaker Cody Unser, quality-of-life advocate and proponent of therapeutic scuba-diving, during the PARTNERS “Share The Care” Spring Luncheon, April 24, to benefit The University Of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Nursing. The daughter and granddaughter of racing legends, she encouraged the audience to “Stand on the gas!” and not accept limitations on fully experiencing life.
Cody Unser suddenly developed transverse myelitis at age 12 and became paralyzed from the chest down. At the age of 13, she founded the Cody Unser First Step Foundation and dedicated herself to “giving a name and face to a disease most people don’t know about.”
Transverse myelitis (TM) is a rare neurological syndrome that inflames the spinal cord, causing pain, weakness and often paralysis. About 1,400 new cases of this disorder are diagnosed each year. Today, Albuquerque native Cody Unser travels the country raising awareness for paralyzed persons while striving to improve their quality of life.
Her foundation’s Adaptive Scuba Program was born of Cody’s transformative scuba-diving experience in the water, which she believes can “change lives one dive at a time” and potentially benefit all people with disabilities. “Once I learned scuba diving and got my certification in the ocean, I got my freedom back, my independence,” Cody said. “You're FREE in the water …”
Cody’s presentation to the PARTNERS luncheon included video of a 2011 CBS documentary with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, showing that some paralyzed patients had improved feeling and function after they had been scuba diving. Researchers are testing the theory that nitrogen build-up in the subjects’ tissues, as a result of repeated scuba dives, may increase levels of the chemical serotonin in their central nervous systems. That serotonin influx might “jump-start” nerves in the spine without input from the brain.
Likening the healthcare professions to auto racing, Cody said: “Teamwork is at play in both, and every team member is essential. I’ve been deeply touched by so many nurses who got me ‘back on the road’ when I really needed it.”
She described the rehabilitation and recovery process as “dealing with the small, everyday things first, then the big things everyone wants.” Praising nurses as the “warming heart of healthcare,” Cody credited compassionate care and encouragement by nurses for helping her reclaim her independence.
Now 26, Cody is seeking a master’s degree in public health at George Washington University and looking for new ways to influence politics and policy-making on behalf of medical research, women’s health and disability rights issues.
“We all have our own individual stories in life and our struggles – and everyone sometimes needs help,” she said. “What counts is what we share with each other and how we show we care.”
The keynote presentation closed with a slide show that illustrated, Cody said, “How we got those nerdy doctors out of their labs.” In May 2011, researchers joined a four-day dive trip to the Grand Cayman Islands. They worked with 10 disabled veterans and 10 volunteers in a control group under the auspices of the foundation’s dive team and Operation Deep Down (the military branch of Cody Unser's Great Scuba Adventures). The researchers gathered neurological and psychological data to examine the hypothesis that scuba diving affords a therapeutic tool that might add to what is known as “exercise science.”
Thanks to Operation Deep Down, Cody now is an honorary member of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, and she also was recently awarded the Red Cross Adult Humanitarian Award. She continues to help veterans from current and past conflicts to heal.
In opening remarks at the luncheon, PARTNERS Board Chair Carolyn Moody Drake observed, “How wonderful it is to be a part of all who ‘Share The Care’ and give of themselves – authentically, creatively, and lovingly.”
Drake, a 1975 B.S.N. graduate, noted the recent tragedies and loss of life in Boston and in West, Texas, and said, “The nurse is born to serve – when there is a disaster, the nurse is among the first responders willing to risk life, health and his or her own well-being.”
Philanthropist Jan Duncan, a PARTNERS lifetime member, was honored as “an ardent community leader who states her life purpose as ‘Love in Action,’ as well as being a true friend of the UTHealth School of Nursing.”
In observance of April 25 as international “Pay It Forward Day,” Drake invited the audience to take away from the table settings a flower in its vase (donated by former PARTNERS chair Leslie Bowlin). “Give it to someone you care about, so we may continue to inspire one another,” Drake said.
B.S.N. student and luncheon volunteer Savannah Wiley complied with the flower-sharing idea by giving it to her neighbor's little girl. “A few minutes later, the little girl I had ‘Shared The Care’ with rings my doorbell and, without saying a word, she reaches up and hands me a hand-picked wildflower (the kind that grows naturally in the grass during springtime),” Savannah reported. “My heart was so touched that I gave her a big hug and thanked her – What a rewarding moment that was, and it all started with the flower that was given to me at the PARTNERS Luncheon!”
In the enthusiastic luncheon audience were UTHealth Development Board Chair Julius Glickman with his wife Suzan, and School of Nursing Advisory Council Chair Kenneth Lewis.
The pre-luncheon invocation was given by Reverend Dr. Linda Christians, executive pastor at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church – and also a former nurse.
Master of Ceremonies was three-time Emmy award winner and HoustonPBS anchor/producer Ernie Manouse, who shared with the audience: “By proclamation of Mayor of Houston Annise Parker, today is officially ‘CODY UNSER DAY’ in Houston!”
Kathrine McGovern and the John P. McGovern Foundation were the major underwriters of the event. Others underwriters included: PARTNERS Lifetime Member Jan Duncan; PARTNERS Lifetime and Board Member Sheri Henriksen and her husband Ron Henriksen; PARTNERS Lifetime and Board Member Soraya McClelland, husband Scott McClelland and H-E-B; and Texas Children’s Hospital, represented by Lori Armstrong.
Proceeds from the “Share The Care” Luncheon at the River Oaks Country Club will benefit programs and services for the UTHealth School of Nursing. To date, PARTNERS holds a $1.6-million endowment to support its projects and currently has 86 Lifetime Members.
Story written by – David R. Bates, Communications Director, UTHealth School of Nursing
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