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I found 'life's calling' after paralyzing injury

By Janne Kouri, Special to CNN
January 23, 2013 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Janne Kouri was paralyzed in an accident at the beach in 2006
  • He completed a year of rehabilitation in Kentucky
  • Kouri says he would not undo his accident
  • He founded a nonprofit organization to help others

Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle -- injury, illness or other hardship -- they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. This week we meet Janne Kouri, whose life changed dramatically after a freak accident more than six years ago.

(CNN) -- I was living the dream: a new house by the beach, great career, beautiful girlfriend, wonderful family and friends -- and then in an instant it all came to a screeching halt.

August 5, 2006, was an idealistic day in Manhattan Beach, California. Blue skies, friends, warm water, a perfect day at the beach, and the living was easy. My friends and I were playing volleyball, having the time of our lives, and then I decided to go for a swim.

I ran into the water, dove through a wave and hit my head on a sandbar. In a split second, my life changed forever -- I was instantly paralyzed from the neck down.

Hours later, I was hospitalized and the results were in. I broke my C5 and C6 vertebrae, and my doctor told me that I would never walk again and had no hope for recovery.

Words cannot express the terror I felt when I heard those words. The next couple of days were a living nightmare. But then, I had a moment of clarity. I knew my life would be defined by this moment.

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How would I handle this horrific news? Answering one simple question put me on the path to overcoming this tragedy. I asked myself if I wanted to live a happy life or be miserable.

The answer was obvious. I realized how lucky I was to be alive. If not for a random person seeing me in a sea of surfers and swimmers, I would have drowned. From that day forth, I dedicated myself to adopting a positive outlook, not complaining and taking on this challenge with a smile.

After spending two months in a hospital intensive care unit battling pneumonia and a 104-degree fever, breathing on a ventilator and having two near-death experiences, I was finally healthy enough to start my rehabilitation process.

After a great deal of research, my girlfriend found Dr. Susan Harkema at Frazier Rehab Institute in Louisville, Kentucky. Harkema was the only doctor in America that told us there was hope.

The decision was final -- Louisville, here we come. Harkema was going to let me participate in a locomotor program, the most progressive therapy for a spinal cord injury.

We left our lives behind -- our jobs, families, friends, dogs, home and the California sunshine. But why did I have to leave California to get rehab? It's the eighth-largest economy in the world. This made no sense to me. What would I have done if I couldn't afford to move to Louisville?

This shocking reality opened my eyes to a major problem within our health care system. There is a complete lack of resources available to the 6 million people with paralysis-related disabilities in America. It is not practical or affordable for someone to uproot his or her entire life and move across the country simply to get the rehab desperately needed for survival.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend one year at Frazier -- the average spinal cord injury patient only spends 36 days in rehab before being discharged home due to their insurance coverage. If I were released after 36 days, I am quite sure that I would not be here today.

I experienced amazing results from my rehab. I made lifelong friends, I learned how to laugh and be happy during the most difficult of times, but most of all, I learned how precious every breath is and how blessed I am to have so much love in my life.

I wouldn't wish this injury on my worst enemy, but thanks to that fateful day, I found my life's calling. If I had the option to go back in time and go for a snack instead of jumping in the ocean, I wouldn't do it.

While at Frazier, we started thinking about my ongoing care in California. I was experiencing such amazing results; I did not want to stop my rehab. I knew to achieve my goal of walking again and living a healthy life, I had to exercise daily. What was I going to do? That's when the idea of NextStep came to us. We launched in June 2008.

Today, NextStep is a nationally recognized nonprofit organization, but more than that, it is a nationwide movement that aims to revolutionize the quality and accessibility of health care for the physically challenged community.

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