Wheels with Wings: Healing Takes Flight

By Lisa Wells, Wheel-Life.org

In 2004, at the age of 24, Natalie Marie Barnhard was working as a physical therapist assistant and licensed massage therapist—a great job in a field about which she was extremely passionate. Then a catastrophic accident changed her life when a 600-pound exercise weight machine fell over and landed on top of her. Though the road back seemed insurmountable at times, Natalie’s laser focus on the goals she established during her rehab were instrumental in pulling her through. She was determined to create a foundation that would not only encourage and advocate for people, but also secure funding for expensive, yet necessary, specialized medical care. This dream ultimately became Wheels With Wings.

Natalie Barnhard with her service dog Gabe

Life After Injury: Ready or Not, Here It Comes

“It’s definitely important to get involved in things, and get out of the house after you go home from rehab,” recalled Natalie. “The first couple years of my injury, I didn’t want to leave the house. I didn’t even want to be around other people with disabilities. I didn’t really want to fully engage in ‘that’ life. I just couldn’t accept it.”

She eventually recognized the benefits of getting involved in a peer support program and other connections like adaptive sports. “You can share your stories with people like you, you can vent with each other, you can get mad at each other. You start realizing that you’re not alone, and it starts bringing you out of your shell.”

“For me, the secret to getting out of that trap was a good support system and my faith in God. My family, they let me grieve for my loss. They let me go through what I needed, but they also pushed me. They didn’t let me wallow in it too long,” she said. “I needed those people to look me in the face and tell me, ‘Your life isn’t over. There’s still so much that you can do.’”

Natalie’s friends and family joined together for Natalie’s Walk in 2012.

Natalie’s friends and family joined together for Natalie’s Walk in 2012.

Wheels with Wings: Origin Story

“Early on, even before my injury when I was a therapist, I always wanted to start some sort of wellness program, but I never in a million years thought it would revolve around SCI,” said Natalie. “I especially never thought that I myself would be in the program or in a wheelchair!”

Initially, Natalie mourned what she felt was the loss of her ability to improve the lives of others. She thought she had been given a gift for helping and healing others only to have it abruptly taken away.

“I always felt like I had something important to do,” Natalie said. “I never really knew what it was going to be…I knew I loved working with people so when I discovered physical therapy and massage, it was the perfect fit. I would bounce around the gym from patient to patient, and I loved it. So to be confined to a chair was frustrating. I slowly started to feel God saying, ‘Help other people. Keep helping as you are.’”

Natalie and her insurance carrier differed drastically when it came to the length of her therapy. They felt 6 months should do it and, as a clinician, Natalie knew that wasn’t going to cut it. “I learned really quick how to be my own care advocate,” she said. “I had to fight very, very hard for myself. That sucked.”

But out of this personal hardship along with the tremendous impact of continued physical therapy came inspiration. “I started to feel like I wanted to do this foundation to help people in the same situation,” said Natalie. “One day a friend and I went to get some sushi, and had a couple glasses of sake, and all of a sudden we had a name for the organization: Wheels with Wings! We were doodling on napkins for logos. It was hilarious.”

Wheels With Wings' mission is to assist individuals who have suffered a spinal cord injury and their families, to rise above and recover from this catastrophic injury. Individual grant awards, education, resources, awareness and advocacy are ways the organization works to improve the lives of people with this injury, helping them to become independent, productive and truly make a difference.

“It’s an amazing moment when you realize the reason and the purpose for why you are here. And I have,” she shared. “It makes all of this worth it, even the SCI. It truly does.”

Of course, Natalie admits that there are always frustrations that come with her disability like depending on others for dressing and bathroom use, but she refuses to let that be her focus.

“If I don’t put my energy into thinking about those things and what I can’t do, and instead I say, ‘I just gave somebody a grant to do $10,000 worth of therapy, and now they can transfer themselves in and out of their wheelchair’—that’s an incredible feeling and one I’m so willing to have in exchange for the path I’ve had to go down to get here.”

Natalie has advocated for disability rights on Capitol Hill.

Natalie has advocated for disability rights on Capitol Hill.

Beyond the Wings

Natalie's journey continues to move forward beyond her own traumatic injury as she strives to help people. She is now beginning the development stages of a state-of-the-art spinal cord recovery institute in Western New York where it is desperately needed and can help many people. Her dream is to create a unique one-of-a-kind facility that will help other people rise above their injuries similar to the way she has in her own life. Learn more at http://nataliebarnhard.com.

The rest of Natalie’s story can be found in the Wheel:Life book entitled Reconnecting: Relationship Advice from Wheelchair Users. This free publication features the real life stories of people who use wheelchairs, along with their unique perspectives on friends, family and relationships including dating, marriage and parenting. Request a free copy at: http://wheel-life.org/book-request-form/free-book-series/reconnecting-book-form/.

About the Author:

Lisa Wells has helped create several online social communities (Wheel:Life, Life After Spinal Cord Injury & iPush Foundation) to assist wheelchair users in discovering new relationships, lifestyle resources and web-based support groups.

Lisa also leads Get Social Consulting, a consulting practice that guides healthcare providers in creating online communication resources for people who have disabilities. An acclaimed speaker and guest columnist, you will find her presenting at healthcare conferences nationwide. Follow her articles at www.wheel-life.org.

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