Norton: I'll walk to collect diploma
The goal is simple enough, one shared by thousands of would-be college graduates each year: Walk across the stage.
But for Chris Norton, it will be the journey of a lifetime. The 22-year-old Luther College student broke his neck in a college football game in October 2010.
Doctors initially believed he had about a 3 percent chance of ever moving below the neck again. But the Bondurant-Farrar High School alumnus rejected the diagnosis and has fought to regain mobility fractions of inches at a time.
Today, he can stand on his own and walk with minimal assistance. He is a ways from leisurely strolls, but Norton plans to collect his diploma on foot come spring 2015.
"I might be using crutches," Norton told The Des Moines Register this week. "It might be with a walker. But it will be independently. I will do it on my own."
Norton and his friends and family are also working on getting another form of independence: He wants to drive again.
Norton took initial tests with a specialized trainer who believes Norton could drive again if he had a properly equipped vehicle he can control despite his mobility issues.
The problem: The rig he needs costs about $150,000, which is more than Norton can afford.
Vehicle could help him to help others
Norton confided in his girlfriend, Emily Summers, a University of Northern Iowa student from Muscatine, about his woes in getting wheels.
Summers searched the Web for a solution. She found an annual competition held by the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association. People post their stories online in hopes of winning one of four customized vehicles.
Summers made a video about her beau. She looks directly into the camera with serious, clear brown eyes and explains why Norton deserves to win.
"He is the most inspiring person I have ever met," Summers said. "And he has used this challenge in his life to help other people."
One example: About a year ago, with the help of his family and supporters, Norton started a foundation called SCI CAN.
The organization's goal is to raise money to provide equipment for others who have suffered spinal cord or other neurological injuries.
SCI CAN has already raised more than $230,000 and awarded grants to hospitals in Iowa and nationally.
Norton serves on a board that wants to create a residential recovery house for neurological patients near the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Norton spent 129 days at the Mayo Clinic after his injury and returned there for more than a year to continue physical therapy.
Through SCI CAN, Norton hopes to raise money for a neural injury recovery center in Des Moines.
And he speaks at schools, at hospitals and for corporate groups. Norton shares his story and hopes to inspire those struggling with injuries to fight for another fraction of an inch and those moved by his story to donate what they can to help.
Terry Norton, Chris Norton's father, remembers when his son was injured, as they awaited a helicopter ambulance to fly him from Decorah to the Mayo Clinic.
The elder Norton wondered what kind of life his son would have, whether he would ever be able to live alone or have a family. Now Terry Norton is more worried about planning his youngest daughter's high school graduation.
From faint twitches to flipping a visor
His son has progressed from the faintest of twitches in his shoulder to a whole range of movements once thought impossible.
"I went from wondering if Chris would ever have a normal life to believing he is going to have a pretty extraordinary life," Terry Norton said.
"The other day we were driving, and he reached up and flipped the visor down to keep the sun out of his eyes," Terry Norton recalled. "I see that and think, 'Wow. Look how far he's come. I used to have to feed him, and he's flipping that visor like it's nothing.' "
For the first two years after his accident, Chris Norton's older sister, Alex Norton, a registered nurse, lived in Decorah.
She helped care for her brother, shuttling him to appointments and supervising his recovery.
But Alex Norton moved back to Des Moines last year, in part because her brother had regained so much independence.
Chris Norton's fingers have regained some fine motor skills. He still can't write with a pen or pencil, but he can brush his teeth, shave, shower and generally take care of himself alone. And true to anyone of the mobile device generation, Norton can text like a madman.
Norton travels mostly by a power-assisted wheelchair, which he propels manually with battery-powered discs that augment the strength of his pushes. The fully electric chair controlled by a joystick is now in storage.
"I'm completely done with that," Norton said.
Norton rarely looks back, but he does occasionally. He posts videos of his progress on his YouTube channel. He watches the old ones to remember how far he has come.
But Norton lives for the future. His eyes are always on the road ahead. He just needs some new wheels to travel it.
How to vote in contest
As part of National Mobility Awareness Month, the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association is holding a contest to give away four vehicles customized for people with disabilities. The contest currently has about 1,300 entrants, said Cheryl Parker, spokeswoman for the event. Those who finish in the top 10 of online voting will be forwarded to an independent panel, which will award the vehicles. Voting ends May 9.
One of the entrants is Chris Norton, a Bondurant native who suffered a broken neck and spinal cord injury during a college football game in 2010. He hopes to win a customized vehicle that would allow him to drive.
To vote for Chris, go to www.mobilityawarenessmonth.com/entrant/christopher-norton-altoona-ia/.