How He Grasped Hope and Found Healing After Paralysis: Chris Leeuw #66

Warwick Fairfax

May 4, 2021

Chris Leeuw had his entire life ahead of him — and it looked very bright. A self-described “adrenaline junkie,” he reveled in outdoor activities like water-skiing and kayaking and loved his job in local TV news. It all changed in a tragic instant. Chris, at 28, was paralyzed from the neck down in a freak recreational diving accident — and thought he’d never walk or be able to care for himself again.  But despite the physical and financial crucibles he faced, he refused to give up. Chris let every physical sensation he began to feel again fuel his drive to pursue the most cutting-edge treatment and rehabilitation — and work tirelessly to achieve the healing he once dared not imagine was possible. Now, just more than a decade later, he has regained much of his mobility and something just as life-changing: a passion for helping others with spinal-cord injuries via the nonprofit rehabilitation center he founded.

To learn more about Chris Leeuw, visit www.neurohopewellness.org

Highlights

  • His pre-injury life as an “adrenaline junkie” (3:28)
  • How he got into journalism (5:40)
  • The day he was paralyzed (7:45)
  • His regrets over what he did and didn’t do — and how he almost died (14:19)
  • When his quadriplegia really hit him (17:27)
  • How he felt completely helpless (20:18)
  • Why he was mad at himself about the accident (22:39)
  • The first signs that recovery was possible (28:49)
  • A second crucible when his insurance ran out (30:03)
  • New hope in learning of a new rehabilitation center (35:19)
  • How he “beat” paralysis (39:04)
  • The importance of never losing hope (40:08)
  • How his life of significance was born from his crucible (45:43)
  • The perspective of life his crucible gave him (54:39)
  • Key episode takeaways (59:59)

Transcript

Warwick F:
Welcome to Beyond the Crucible. I’m Warwick Fairfax, the founder of Crucible Leadership.

Chris L:
So, we counted to three, jumped off feet first. And I remember falling, and I can hear the velocity. It was a long drop. Looking at the water, and then I hit the water. I knew something was drastically wrong. And it’s hard to sort of explain it other than the feeling of as if I had got hit by stun gun or something like that. It was a far drop, the water was cold. At first, I thought maybe I had whiplash or something. But all I could tell was it was as if I’d been hit by a stun gun and I was totally completely frozen. I just couldn’t move anything. I didn’t feel anything. There was no pain. I didn’t feel like anything had hit me. But I was in the water, and I couldn’t move, and I was utterly frozen. And I remember just being in complete confusion, but I couldn’t move. And I was just floating in between the water and the ground. I always mention that it felt like I was an astronaut drifting somewhere in space.

Gary S:
That’s a pretty dramatic story, isn’t it? But would you believe it’s not the most dramatic thing about the crucible experience of our guest today. Hi, I’m Gary Schneeberger co-host of the show and the Communications Director for Crucible Leadership. Today’s guest is Chris Leeuw. And what he just described was a devastating recreational diving accident that left him a quadriplegic, and in an instant tragedy that almost killed him. But as you’ll hear in his conversation with Warwick, Chris refused to let paralysis be the end of his story. After two years of arduous rehab complicated by some setbacks with his insurance coverage, he battled back not only to regain movement and mobility, but to found a non-profit rehab center where he lives his life of significance helping others move beyond their physical and emotional crucibles.

Warwick F:
Well, Chris, thanks so much for being here. I really appreciate it. You have just an amazing story in how you’ve come back from what… I mean, it’s hard to believe what you have, achieved is probably not the right word, but what you’ve overcome. It is almost literally unbelievable. I’m sure a lot of people have said what you did is maybe not impossible, but close. So obviously the turning point in your life was that spinal cord injury. But tell me a bit about Chris Leeuw and growing up and career. And what was life like before age 28? What was the before story, so to speak?

Chris L:
Well, thanks for having me, Warwick. It’s really good to talk to you and Gary, good to see you both. And I appreciate you thinking of me in your podcast. The premise of your podcast definitely relates to my life. I know it relates to a lot of other people as well, struggles we go through. So I appreciate you having me on. Obviously, my life changed a lot as you heard in the introduction. But early on, wondering about pre-injury and pre life-changing moment. I was hurt at age 28. But before then, I think I was always a very active individual. I was an adrenaline junkie a little bit. A little bit how I got paralyzed, and you’ll probably recognize that. But I grew up in Indianapolis in a very fortunate upper middle-class family.

Chris L:
My family is amazing. They were a huge part of my recovery. They were a huge part of the clinic I’m in now. I grew up very fortunate having that nuclear family. I always had a sense of adventure, I was always active. I was always the guy that was, you couldn’t keep me still getting into activities here and there and always wanting to do more. And I think that sort of led me to my first career path, which was in television and news. I was drawn to being a reporter because think about what a reporter does, they’re out and about, they’re doing stories, doing the community. No day is different. I really found that to be a big part of who I was as a person early on, never wanting to sit still, always wanting to get out there and do things.

Warwick F:
So, as you were growing up were things you liked to do with your mom and dad, I mean, sports, you’re a very active person. Were there things that you just loved doing?

Chris L:
I had two passions when I was younger. One of them was water skiing and wakeboarding. I did that since about the age five or six. I was on a pair of skis and I was on the Indiana University Water Ski Club and I actually taught water skiing and wakeboarding in college in the Berkshire, Massachusetts mountains. And the one was playing the drums. I played the drums since I was about age five or six, too. My parents got me involved in activities because I was so restless all the time. And those are some of the things that I definitely had a passion for growing up.

Warwick F:
I can imagine. Don’t let Chris sit still. Keep him busy. Which makes sense. And so, reporting now. I mean, you mentioned you loved being on the go, but how did you pick that? And was that in Indianapolis or where did you start out with TV reporting?

Chris L:
I majored in telecommunications and business at Indiana University. I really liked, I really enjoyed the filmmaking part of it as well. So, that was part of the whole thing that drew me into journalism. But also just the storytelling part. I always liked a little bit of the adrenaline, I think of even just public speaking, and being live on air. There’s always is always nervous, but then afterwards, you liked it. So, maybe that was part of it that drew me to it as well. But a lot of it was just I didn’t see myself having an office job at that age in my early 20s, and I wanted to just do something that had to do with being active.

Warwick F:
That’s great. That was local, was it?

Chris L:
That’s how I gravitated toward that. And then I actually I went to graduate school for journalism after my undergraduate degree, but there are definitely times between there that I was bouncing around not knowing I was going to do exactly with life. It wasn’t like I was like, “Okay, as soon as I graduate, I’m going to go into this profession. So, I guess to answer your question, I started in Indiana. I also worked at some news stations in Florida, and then back to Indiana.

Warwick F:
Okay.

Gary S:
This is the first time… I just have to note this for the record. This is the first time on Beyond the Crucible that we have three people with journalism backgrounds all sharing the microphones.

Chris L:
It’s true.

Gary S:
We’ve got Chris, a former television journalist. Gary, the co-host, a former newspaper journalist, and Warwick, former magnate who owned a company that owned both print and electronic journalism outlets. So, look at us.

Chris L:
There you go.

Warwick F:
Yeah. So, I never actually was a reporter. But yeah, on the different sides. So talk about that fateful day. As I was understanding it was Southern Indiana. You were kayaking. It was just a probably beautiful warm day. You were out as you love doing in nature and water. I guess you weren’t quite water skiing, but you were kayaking. And you must have thought, “Boy, life is just awesome.” You’re with some buddies. So, take us through that day because it started out probably as just a wonderful warm day.

Chris L:
Yeah, it was a 95 degree hot, humid, Midwestern day. And I was with two of my best friends, and we were kayaking. And it’s one of those things where a typical summer Sunday you’re having fun with your friends. I was at the age where… At age 28, you have your life ahead of you. At that point you don’t really realize it at the time. I mean, I’m 39 now so there’s been 11 years that have passed since then I’ve learned a whole lot. But that day I look back at that day often. And you just no idea what’s in store in life in general. You think you have things figured out even when you’re young at that age, going into the professional world. But obviously, I had no idea what was in store for me later that afternoon.

Chris L:
So we’re kayaking on this river, and we approach this bridge that’s over the river. It’s an abandoned bridge. It’s a truss bridge. And there were some people jumping off the bridge into the water, maybe about 20 feet or so into the water deep water, not overly dangerous, and was with my friends and we were like, “Oh yeah, we’re jumping off that bridge, too.” That’s supposed to be fun.

Warwick F:
Adrenaline junkies after all.

Chris L:
Yeah, I mean, it was hot. It was fun. I mean, it wasn’t anything more dangerous than maybe jumping off the high dive. It wasn’t ultimately that dangerous. But then jumped off a couple times, but then there was this higher truss, one of these big vertical beams that went way up higher about an extra 30 feet. And then I decided to climb up that as well. So I kind of scaled up this vertical beam up to the very top beam probably about 50, 60 feet above the water. And I always tell people, it felt like one of those construction pictures you see of New York City with people and the hardhats on.

Chris L:
That’s what it felt like on this beam over the treetops, and I’m about to jump off, and I hear this voice from down below, someone telling me to wait. It was a stranger. I didn’t know who he was. But I kind of looked down and said, “Okay, come on up if you want to jump with me.” I’m always good having a partner. So, I waited for him to climb up and we’re both sitting there like two birds on a little perch on a wire.

Chris L:
I can remember the conversation pretty clearly. I have been up there for a while, and I wanted to get off that beam. And he was like, he said to me, he said, “Wow, look you can see everything up here.” I remember cutting him off mid sentence, and I was like, “Yeah, that’s great. I’m going to jump in three seconds. So, are you ready?” And he said, “Yep.” So we counted to three, and jumped off feet first. And I remember falling, and I can hear the velocity when you… It was a long drop, looking at the water, and then I hit the water. I knew something was drastically wrong.

Chris L:
It’s hard to sort of explain it other than the feeling of as if I would’ve got hit by a stun gun or something. There was a far drop, the water was cold. At first, I thought maybe I had whiplash or something. But all I could tell was it was as if I had been hit by a stun gun, and I was totally completely frozen. I just couldn’t move anything. I didn’t feel anything. There was no pain. There was no… I didn’t feel like anything had hit me, but I was in the water, and I couldn’t move, and I was utterly frozen.

Chris L:
I remember just being in complete confusion. But I couldn’t move, and I was just floating in between the water and the ground. I always mention that it felt like I was an astronaut drifting somewhere in space. But I was frozen, I couldn’t move. After a few moments, I didn’t think about drowning at that moment, but it was pretty soon after that where that started being a very concern of mine. And after what felt like five minutes, it was probably only about maybe 10 or 15 seconds I felt this strange feeling on my back. And that’s when I realized that, okay, at least I was on the surface, but I was still head down facedown in the water. Yeah, I couldn’t I couldn’t move.

Chris L:
What happened was it turned out the gentleman that jumped with me, we jumped at the same time, we fell at about the same rate, he ended up coming in right on top of me as we struck the water simultaneously, and just snapped my neck at this fourth cervical level. So, just like that I was totally paralyzed from the neck down.

Warwick F:
This wasn’t one of your buddies, it was just some other guy that was there, right?

Chris L:
Right. Yeah. He was another person that was watching us jump.

Warwick F:
Yeah. So you didn’t… And so, as you’re up there, 50 foot up, and you’re about to go were you thinking that you were going to jump together? Or hey, let’s do it together? You didn’t think about, “Oh, gee, what could happen?” You think you’re just going to both jump on the water? It’s just not one, two, three, let’s go. It’s just-

Chris L:
Exactly, yeah.

Warwick F:
It doesn’t occur to you that that could even happen.

Gary S:
And it probably didn’t seem that different. I’ve seen when romantic couples dive off of cliffs, they hold hands and they jump at the same time. So, I would think why you guys probably weren’t holding hand is the fact that you jumped together at the same time didn’t seem that unordinary, right?

Chris L:
Right. Yeah, It didn’t at all. No, I mean, we weren’t holding hands, but we were very close to one another because the way up to that top truss was just this one vertical beam. And once you’re up on that beam, it’s not like we were walking around. It was so high. I didn’t think about it. But in hindsight I really beat myself up over it. Because I was like we were so close to each other when we jumped, we didn’t even think about it. And that’s what did it. We were just so close to each other.

Warwick F:
So, in that moment when obviously your face down, you can’t move, you’re not probably thinking, “Oh, gosh, I must be paralyzed.” You’re just confused, right? It’s like, “I don’t know what’s happening.” So, talk us through those first few moments, first maybe hour or two. I mean, what was going through your head?

Chris L:
The worst. I actually did sort of… Well, when I was facedown in the water I knew obviously something was wrong. I was very, very close to drowning because I was face down drifting a little bit. And I remember when you get to that point, if you’ve ever tried holding your breath underwater, you get to see how long you can do it. You get to that point where alarms going off in your head. I was definitely at that point. About the last second I started feeling someone tug my body and flipped me over. Then the second that happened, I just screamed out. I was like, “I’m awake, I’m awake. I’m conscious,” because I figured a lot of people might have thought I was unconscious. It was the guy that jumped on me. He eventually got to me, and flipped me over, and dragged me to shore.

Chris L:
As soon as I was on the shore, a lot of the commotions had stopped. But still it’s a very surreal feeling being paralyzed. It’s very surreal because just thinking, maybe this is going to wear off. Maybe it’s a little bit of whiplash. Within the span of a couple minutes you go from this carefree summer Sunday to constantly all of a sudden thinking that you see the no diving signs on swimming pools, and you hear the stories of people like Christopher Reeve who’s famous for he really is one of the people in the ’90s that put spinal cord injuries on the map and all those things ran through my head, too.

Chris L:
I think even in that early moments on that beach I just said, “Okay, just get up, just move. You can do this, just move.” And when you can’t, feeling like you’re stuck in concrete I started to realize that, okay, as the minutes went on that this was serious. I had been a lifeguard. So, I had done back boarding drills, and I some of those things are always in the back of your mind like, “Okay, well, do I have a spinal cord injury? Is this happening?”

Warwick F:
So, all those thoughts were in your mind.

Chris L:
They were.

Warwick F:
You knew, obviously, this was serious. And so, I mean, I suppose it’s inevitable, the sense of fear, panic. I mean, were all those pain. I mean, all those thoughts, physical and emotional all running through your mind in those first minutes and hours.

Chris L:
All of it. Yeah, a helicopter was called in, and they actually airlifted me to a hospital in Indianapolis, which was about half an hour away. I think when it really hit me was the next day when I had woken up out of surgery because they had gone under. They had reconstructed my neck. But the next the next morning when I woke up from surgery is the first time that I had fallen asleep and really woken back up to the reality. And I was on a ventilator. I had this tube down my throat that was breathing for me because my lungs were partially paralyzed. I can remember waking up… And the whole time I was totally conscious, even the moment I was injured. Nothing happened to my brain. I was never knocked unconscious. I was thinking and talking the way I am now. But that’s when it really hit me, was this the rest of my life?

Chris L:
It’s really the emotions that run through your mind not only not moving again. So many people think about, “Oh, yeah, I’ll never walk again.” But once you’re introduced to what it’s like being a quadriplegic where you need people to arrange your limbs. You need to so you don’t get bedsores. You need someone to cath you because you’d have no bowel and bladder function. And you are completely 100% dependent on everything. I get introduced to that part of the world in those early days and weeks in the ICU and in the hospital. And you think your life’s over. At the age of 28 I thought my life was over. And particularly as family and friends, they come visiting. It very much felt like I was living through my own weight. It was hard. Obviously, it goes without saying.

Warwick F:
What you’re saying is obviously the pain is one thing, but for somebody that was so active, the sense of the active Chris Leeuw is no more. The kayaking, the wakeboarding, the even newspaper reporting. I mean, it’s obviously possible in this day and age, but you’re just thinking, “Gosh,” I think of, I’m sure you’re familiar Joni Eareckson Tada who was paralyzed in a diving accident on the late ’60s, I don’t know at 16, 17, and she’s a person of faith and just had a radio show since. I don’t know if it’s 50 plus years that she’s been a quadriplegic and she was a horse rider and her life was permanently changed.

Warwick F:
Yeah, I mean, I’ve read her book, listened to her story. It takes hours to get out of bed and hours to get ready for bed and there’s people helping her whole life. Obviously, fortunately, your trajectory changed a bit but that’s feeling of helplessness. People mean well and gee, Chris, how can I help you? What can I do for you? That’s very kind of them. They’re probably feeling I don’t want people to have to help me. I want to do this myself. Thank you for offering but all that niceness and kindness and helping you it probably some weird way was a bit depressing. Does that make any kind of sense?

Chris L:
It does. Suddenly, you need people to feed you and you need people to… You can’t even be upright in bed without your blood pressure dropping. All these little things happen when you’re quadriplegic. Helplessness is a very big… I felt completely helpless. Not only physically, but also just where my life was going to be going from that point on. Depending on the age of some of your listeners, if they’re in the older generation, you think back to when they were aged 28 and maybe in the beginning of having a family and all that and the beginning of a career and having a life in front of you, and all of a sudden having it snuffed out. Or if you’re a younger person now, think about right now, you think you have a problem now. You’re complaining about something. Well, all of that could change in the next 10 minutes, and that’s something that when all those thoughts are flooding your mind early on. Like I mentioned before, I 100% thought that my life was over.

Warwick F:
Yeah, and just hard to imagine how could I have a life as a quadriplegic? I mean, it’s not easy. It’s possible but at that moment it must have felt like as you say, life is over. So there’s the whole physically what do I do and we’ll get into your journey here very shortly, because that’s fascinating. But there’s also the recrimination side. It’s easy objectively to look to say, “Look, two young guys, they jump off things happen.” If it’s not you it’s easy to be objective and say, “Look, yeah, maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing to be up 50 foot, but plenty of people do that. The water was deep. It wasn’t that crazy.” So, if you’re not you, you can look at it objectively. But did you look back and get angry at yourself, angry at this person you didn’t know that jumped at the same time? Were there some self recrimination or anger at others? Was that any part of the whole mix of emotions in there?

Chris L:
I was very mad at myself. I was very mad at myself. Nothing toward the other person. In fact, he’s the one that saved my life because I almost drowned. I don’t mean this in any sort of exaggeration. I was maybe within a few seconds of drowning. That’s how long that I was face down floating. Yeah, I just beat up myself for like I said earlier, just being so close to each other. I was like, “Why did I not think of that?” Yeah, there was particularly, and a lot of a lot of those early days in the hospital. The nights were always the worst early on. When I moved to the hospital, I moved to the rehabilitation hospital, and even into the nursing home. My friends and family were around me all the time. But a lot of times at night, when I was there by myself, and I could do nothing but stare up at the ceiling. And just trying to comprehend what had happened as the weeks went by.

Chris L:
I think it’s okay to wallow in some of those situations, in any struggle you go through in life. But at some point you definitely have to move on. It takes a while to do that, particularly. And I know for my situation that as I was learning about my injury, and it’s been 11 years and part of me still wallows in some of the things that I can’t do anymore because I still do have a lot of… I still live with my injury quite a bit. But yes, that was a very long winded answer. But yes, there was definitely a lot of beating myself up.

Gary S:
Can I jump in and say something from the sheet that you gave us, Chris, because it goes to exactly the point that you’re talking about right now. And it’s interesting because you were 28, and Warwick when you went through your crucible with the takeover that’s roughly the age you were. And I know you went through some of that self recrimination stuff as well. But you said something, Chris, that dovetails off what you just said to us in your sheet that you gave us which was this. Everyone will encounter a devastating struggle in life. One person’s struggle can’t be compared to another’s. But whatever you encounter, you cannot let it define you. You can’t dwell. Find the fortitude to move on, and you will.

Gary S:
I think I’m hearing you, obviously, your experience and where you are now, what we’re going to get into as Warwick asks you more questions here in a bit is going to show that and Warwick listeners already know that’s your story as well. You had some struggle at the same age and you were able to move on. So again, we have this conversation a lot on this show. The details of your crucible can be different. And listener, you may not have become a quadriplegic in a “freakish accident.” And you certainly may not have lost a multi-billion dollar family media company, but the emotions behind them as you listen to Chris talk and you’ve heard Warwick talk, those emotions of man, I messed up. Man, I should have done that differently. Those emotions are legit. Those emotions are common, and you can get beyond them. These two gentlemen have proven that.

Warwick F:
Yeah, I mean, Gary, so well said. I mean, it’s as you said, you can’t compare crucibles and what I went through, I feel like it’s nothing compared to what Chris has gone through and the physical emotional pain. But yet, yeah, I mean, listeners will have gone through all sorts of different crucibles. And it’s true. I mean, when I think of my life altering moment it was late March 1982 when I launched this $2 billion takeover. Once I pushed that button, life was never going to be the same. It caused a lot of friction within my family saying, “Why do you need to do that?” I was young, and idealistic thought, as listeners know, management needed to be changed, brought back to the ideals of the founder.

Warwick F:
Doesn’t really matter so much whether that was right or wrong, but it was life altering, and we’re fine financially. But I don’t live in Australia anymore. I mean, it’s just my wife’s American, which is very public. And still to this day there are times in which I look back and say, “I mean, I had an undergrad degree at Oxford, a Harvard Business School degree. How could I have been so stupid in doing that takeover? I mean, what a moron. I mean, why did I do it? Look, I’ve had decades to move on and I love what I do with Crucible Leadership, but it’s easy to be angry at yourself, or maybe little, slightly angry at other family members because if the family had been more together, maybe it wouldn’t have felt it was necessary. But it’s that sense of just trying to force yourself to move on.

Warwick F:
There’ll always be days when you reflect and think a bit about the terrible day. And again, I’m not trying to compare because what you went through is far more pain in a lot of ways, but yeah, no, I get what you’re saying, Gary, and it’s well said. So talk about you are in the hospital for I think a number of months, and that didn’t last forever. You’re making small progress. So, you went through a lot of mini-crucibles a lot of after that big one, a lot of steps. I mean, how did you have the perseverance just to want to not give up because it’s clear to me, you never gave up on life. You never said I’m not going to just sit here, I’m going to do whatever I can to get maximum recovery, whatever that might mean, right? How did you have that kind of determination to just keep trying?

Chris L:
I think… Well, first off a little bit, I’ll give you a very brief spinal cord injury 101, which is when I was hurt I knew nothing about it either. You assume you have a spinal cord injury and that’s it. But every injury is totally different. Same with a brain injury, same with a stroke. You don’t know how much damage has been done to your nervous system and mine was significant, clearly, because here I was several weeks out of my injury. And as the months rolled by, I’m still a quadriplegic, but I started getting very small bits of movement back within the first week or so below where my injury happened. I could start to twitch a couple muscles like I’d start to flex. I remember my very first muscle I could move was my inner thigh consciously. And that was a huge sign because that meant that, okay, there was some signals that my brain was going that was think about your spinal cord injury is like a bruise on your spinal cord, like a beaver dam or something. And all of a sudden, nothing can go through that.

Chris L:
Well, there was some signals going through that. Doctors would tell me, my therapist would tell me, we don’t know if that’s all you’re going to get back, or if more will come. But the bottom line is, you need a lot of time. And over the course of I was in my rehabilitation hospital where I was getting daily physical therapy, occupational therapy, even speech therapy, because I had to learn how to breathe again in a lot of ways. Of course, my lungs are paralyzed. I was getting that every single day. And I was getting movement back. Little bits of movement back and after two months, I could actually move my foot a little bit. I could move some fingers, that was about it. I started realizing that I had potential. But all of a sudden, in spite of a really fantastic insurance plan through my employer. I was working at a communications company at the time, insurance was capped.

Chris L:
Insurance said, “You have been in this rehabilitation hospital for a while.” I was there longer than most. Now, the average stay at a rehabilitation hospital insurance covered in the US is about two weeks. I was there for two months, which was longer than most, but still insurance basically capped. And we were fighting it all along the way. I think my first denial came within a couple of weeks they said that I had plateaued. That’s the key word in that industry. When you plateau, okay your recovery is stopping now, we got to get you home. And then what I found out was a lot of the rehabilitation I was doing was to get me home quicker because they said, “Okay, you need to get fitted for a power wheelchair. You need to make sure your home is adaptive. You need to make sure that your caregivers know how to cath you and feed you and arrange your limbs. That became the care, which is very important, but it stopped becoming necessarily working on recovery.

Warwick F:
Does it almost feel like the insurance is more geared for the insurance company to get you out of hospital and free a bed for somebody else? They wanted to recover, but it does feel like the insurance company’s agenda and your agenda was not totally the same?

Chris L:
A little bit. Yeah, because, I mean, I think insurance companies look at the statistics that I was a C4 spinal cord injury. And after a couple of weeks out of my injury, they say, “Look, this guy he’s got to get home, he can’t be in rehabilitation forever.” The healthcare costs are astronomical. So they move people home very quickly. And that’s really the way it is for a lot of really serious injuries.

Warwick F:
It may be valid and rational from the seat where they sit with actuarial tables and all and data, and you obviously got to make some decision. But from your perspective, I think you were there eight weeks. You hadn’t given up. You were showing signs of improvement, you didn’t want to stop.

Chris L:
That was the irony. The irony was I was slowly getting to the point where I could have used more of all these tools I saw in the therapy gym that I couldn’t use when I first got there because I was nothing but a head on a pillow. I started being able to move some things that okay, now I can maybe participate in more aggressive rehabilitation, but nope, sorry, I had to be discharged. And the option was to come back for outpatient therapy a couple times a week. I think for about a month or go to a nursing home. And at that time we chose a nursing home because I could still get some daily physical therapy, occupational therapy there. That was a very difficult decision because nursing homes didn’t know how to care for quadriplegic. But my parents, my family and friends, I was very fortunate in that regard. They were at my side every day to help me through that was that as I discharged to a nursing home. I was at a nursing home for about another four months.

Warwick F:
And they were willing to help you, work with you, learn what they needed to learn, and it felt like you made more progress over those months in the nursing home. It may not have been ideal, but you made more progress.

Chris L:
I did. I made some more progress because more time had passed, and I was still getting daily therapy. So six months after my injury, I couldn’t move my arms at all, but I actually could actually… I could start to move. I could start to sit up in bed, and I could actually stand and you’re talking about six months after a spinal cord injury. Now six months seems like an awful long time, and it was when you’re rehabbing from that. But in the course of a spinal cord injury after being paralyzed from the neck down after six months being able to actually take a couple steps. Those were huge.

Warwick F:
It must have felt like a miracle. I mean, each step, each finger being able to move it must have felt like you’d won the Super Bowl or something. There was a sense I can’t believe it. I did something else today.

Chris L:
It was and again I absolutely celebrated those wins. But at the same time, you never knew when it was going to stop. I was always like, “Hey, is this it?” I would always also be a little upset because I wasn’t getting more. Because in my mind, I just wanted to start running again. And I wanted to move my arms again and feed myself again. I couldn’t do any of those things.

Warwick F:
And you never know if tomorrow is going to be when you hit that brick wall in which 40 years will go by and you’ll never be able to move anything more than where you are, right?

Chris L:
It’s just a slow, slow process and you need so much aggressive rehabilitation for a long time.

Warwick F:
So how did you move from the nursing home because I think at some point you went to Neuroworx? Talk about what happened after the whole nursing home. You were there for months, making some improvement, but that I guess you felt like there needed to be a change or a change was forced upon you?

Chris L:
Yes. Well, I was actually booted out of the nursing home. I was actually then booted out of the nursing home for insurance, too, for the same reason. At that point, I was still in a wheelchair. But I had heard shortly after I was injured I had heard about this place in Salt Lake City, Utah called Neuroworx through a person I had worked with. And this was a place started by a physician named Dr. Dale Hull and a physical therapist named Jan Black. Dr. Hull had the same sort of injury I did and recognized there was a giant need. He worked with his therapist and they started this small little clinic that was aimed toward helping people after insurance was up and a place where you can go long term. They created Neuroworx. I was hurt in 2010. Neuroworx had already been around for a while. They were still relatively small. But that’s when I got to the point in the nursing home where I said, “Okay, maybe I can actually go across the country to this place because I knew I still need more rehabilitation.” I wasn’t even close to being done yet.

Chris L:
And then we realized, okay, maybe we could do that. So my mother and I, my mother was my caregiver. We flew across the country to Salt Lake City, Utah, and there was a small little apartment that had been donated to Neuroworx at the time. And my mother and I basically lived there in this little apartment, and we went to the Neuroworx every day, Monday through Friday, multiple hours a day for almost two years.

Warwick F:
Did insurance cover that or?

Chris L:
No, that that was the beauty of what Neuroworx was, was that if your insurance is up, and you want to self pay for a physical therapy visit, it usually costs $300 to $400 for an hour.

Warwick F:
Oh, my gosh.

Chris L:
That’s not affordable when you need hours a day for a year.

Warwick F:
No, no.

Chris L:
But Neuroworx would make it more affordable, and then they would fundraise to offset those costs. So my family did do a lot of fundraising to get out there. And we were definitely blessed by at the time I was working for a company called ChaCha, which was started by a man named Scott A. Jones who’s an entrepreneurial voicemail fame that had a lot of startup companies, and a very generous man that actually helped pay for me to get out there. And my family did some fundraising, too. But over the course of a year and a half, we basically self paid out of pocket, but at a very cheap rate. It wasn’t like-

Warwick F:
I mean, the fact… I mean, what would life have been like if there was no Neuroworx? They had both the technology, the training, and it was at least somewhat affordable. Your life would have been radically different, right?

Chris L:
It absolutely would have changed my life. Well, first thing it wasn’t the more rehabilitation that cured my spinal cord injury. But it was the fact that it turned out there was less damage to my spinal cord. But also it still took that access for a long time, and the care I received there. The first time I walked into Neuroworx at the time was the first time I’d ever seen this body weight support treadmill system and electrical stimulation machines, they had a pool therapy. They had these different resources that wasn’t available in a lot of other clinics because they realize that they’re expensive. Sometimes it takes multiple clinicians to use them properly, which is more money for the hospital systems. And to benefit, you need to be doing them for a long time. And when insurance only covers a certain amount of time, they say, “Okay, you’re not going to be able to have time to do this, let’s not even offer it.” And the care becomes what insurance will allow rather than what the patient needs.

Chris L:
Neuroworx saw this, I saw this and over the course of two years, every single day, hours a day relearning to walk, relearning to move my hands. Over the course of that time, I slowly but surely got to where I am now. I’m ambulatory now. I can walk. I still have some paralysis on my left side. But after two years in the spring of 2012, I actually drove myself all the way back home from Salt Lake City to Indianapolis, and I had sort of “beat” paralysis in a way. I had regained bowel and bladder function. I was walking again. If you would have told me that two years ago when the whole dream was, am I ever going to move again? And all of a sudden here I was walking again, it was very surreal. It took place over the course of two years, but it was still very surreal. We leaving Salt Lake City after two years.

Warwick F:
So, that experience really changed your life. It’s patient focus, they have the technology, the training. I mean, your sense of hope, which I mean, somehow through this whole journey even in those darkest days it felt like we unfortunately talk about this, you can wallow and say, “I’m angry, I’m bitter. And I’m just going to sit here for the next 40, 50 years.” Whether you’re paralyzed or emotionally paralyzed, or just feeling down about yourself, maybe you’re a victim of abuse. There’s a lot of reasons objectively it could be valid to wallow, but you never were like that. You just kept pushing and I’m guessing once you’re in Neuroworx your sense of optimism and hope and say, “This stuff is really working. I’ve got the training. I’ve got the support. I’m going to get some level of movement back, some level of my life back.”

Warwick F:
So, I want to talk a bit about NeuroHope. Not everybody has this sense of determination and hope. Where did that come from? I mean, is it family, or what? Maybe within you? I mean, over all these years, you kept pushing and trying, you never gave up. Where did that come from?

Chris L:
That’s a hard question to answer, I guess. I mean, I think what I experienced there, what I experienced just through my process, through the healthcare system, and then through how fortunate I was to actually beat paralysis when so many others can’t. Sometimes it’s because their injury is more severe, sometimes it’s because they may not have the access. It just really inspired me so much, and my family, too. My whole family involved. These injuries affect entire families. And collectively it just came to the point where when your life’s at stake is the way I felt, I’m going to do anything I possibly can to try to get it back. And that’s what I would constantly be reminding myself of, even in the early days, when I was lay at night focusing on some movement. I was like, “Okay, I’m just going to keep moving this foot, I’m going to keep moving this foot, I’m going to try to keep moving this arm, moving this arm.” I became borderline obsessed with the physiology of the injury and my chances of recovery.

Warwick F:
I almost wonder as I’m listening to you, your mindset, your whole life has been be active, go for it, don’t sit still. Maybe that served you well, in some ways, because you weren’t somebody to sit there and do nothing. So if you’re in rehab, you’re going to be going for it. You’re going to be as active as you can. Does that make sense? You have this never sit still mindset, and maybe in some ways that served you. I’m not going to just sit here. I’m going to twitch a muscle as much as I can and twitch the next muscle and may not be much, but I don’t know, I wonder whether your inherent active mindset helped you out there in some ways?

Chris L:
I think it certainly did. And we see the same thing with a lot of clients and patients that come that I rehab with. I mean, you really have to. It’s like you can’t just… It’s not up to the therapists. You have to have it in yourself as well to push yourself.

Warwick F:
You’ve got to make a decision that I’m not going to let this beat me. I’m going to do my level best to recover. I’m not going to be angry at myself. You obviously had to… It sounds a bit ridiculous, but you had to forgive yourself, even though objectively people say, “What’s there to forgive? He was young. People do that all the time.” But still, you were clearly angry at yourself, which objectively doesn’t feel that valid. But you had to do that. Because if you were… That bitterness could have held you back in your recovery. So you had to let go of the bitterness, I’m guessing or angry at yourself?

Chris L:
Yeah, I guess so. I guess so. I mean, I’m still mad at myself sometimes.

Warwick F:
There you go.

Chris L:
But I see what you’re saying, yeah. There were times where I’d be mad at myself and times where I said, “Okay, I got to swallow hard, and…

Warwick F:
You know what they say, what holds you back doesn’t serve you. So, it doesn’t serve you.

Gary S:
I can sense we’re going to shift gears and go into the creation of NeuroHope. But as we do that, as an on ramp, Chris, I want to refer to a little snippet of conversation we had before we pressed record on this conversation when you were talking about your crucibles. And you mentioned obviously your accident was a main crucible, the main crucible, but a secondary one was okay, now, what do I do with my life? And what we’ve seen, and I think this is going to bear out as you tell the story of NeuroHope we see this happen a lot. It happened for Warwick. The idea that your crucible can give birth to your life of significance can give birth to what you do out of that crucible.

Gary S:
Warwick goes through this failure that consumes a continent in that it’s all over Australia. And what does he do? He creates a philosophical and practical consultancy that helps people overcome failure and setback. You not only dealt with paralysis, but dealt with some issues around that like insurance, and how do you pay for it? And how do you do that? It seems to me it’s probably fair to say that out of your crucible, as you figure what do I do next, your life of significance, your vision for what was next came in large part because of that crucible, is that fair?

Chris L:
Yes. Yeah, absolutely. Obviously, recovering from paralysis and what am I going to do as a quadriplegic was one life changing moment. But even early on, I never in a million years would have thought I would have created a clinic to help people. I was just thinking about will I ever walk again, if I get my life back in that regard. But when I came back home, two years after my injury triumphantly defeating paralysis. It’s like, okay, well, now what? I didn’t have a job anymore. I didn’t have… I was living with my sister. And I was still, most people would consider me disabled even now. So I can walk, I walk with a severe limp. I still don’t have use of my left arm. I’m very weak. I can only lift maybe 10 pounds. I still have a lot of significance for my injury. So, I still am a disabled person. And you never think that that’s ever going to happen to you.

Chris L:
So now I here I was back home again. Well, it’s like, “Okay, my life for two years was overcoming paralysis.” Well, now all of a sudden, it’s like I was home again, it’s like, okay, things are different. Now what? And that’s when I think, I guess the second crucible happened because I really… My whole family and I… Again, I mention my family. It really was a family affair. We just said let’s try to do what we experienced in Neuroworx. Why is there not a place like this in our community? Indianapolis is a big city with great healthcare providers. But there’s a very real void in care, and can we do something to address it. And that’s sort of where I made a big sacrifice. I was 30 years old, and I ended up living with my sister at a time when a lot of people when they’re 30, are starting to launch a career and have a family and do all those things.

Chris L:
I started a non-for-profit, not really knowing what we were going to do at first. It was going to like, let’s try to raise funds for maybe the local rehabilitation hospital. But I drew no salary, I live rent free with my sister, and that’s what I did. I had a part time job with a company that gave me a little bit of income. But over the course of the next couple years, we created a nonprofit, and then really tried to say, “Okay, is this possible?” Can we actually create some sort of a clinic? And the University of Indianapolis was the first group that really saw the vision I think early on. I thought maybe we could partner with them in some way. And then the major turning point was I met a physical therapist by the name of Nora Foster, who had come from the spinal cord world at a rehabilitation hospital. I met her, and she, from her perspective, from a clinician’s perspective, said, “Yeah, there’s a big void in here. We got to create something.”

Chris L:
And then when I met her, and we started launching, I’d already created the nonprofit. I’d already raised the same significant amount of money, and I didn’t know what we were going to do with it. That’s when we realized, okay, let’s do this on our own. We started in a very small, tiny room that was given to us rent free from the University of Indianapolis. We had nothing but a therapy mat, and Nora saw some of her first patients that had been discharged. And at that point we didn’t know we’re going to charge very affordable rates, and that was the point, the continuum of care for people. We had no spinal cord injury equipment, we needed some. I tell the story where I got my car, and I drove all the way to headquarters of a place called New Step where they make recumbent stepping machines for people with disabilities.

Chris L:
I kind of told the story and a piece to them and got a New Step donated to us. And then I drove to Minnesota to try to get the standing frame for people paralysis to get donate to us, and that worked as well. So then all of a sudden we had a couple two pieces of a rehab center in this little tiny room, and this was back in 2015. We started the reality of a center, some semblance of a little bit of a center began.

Warwick F:
To me, it’s just incredible because as you’re driving back from Utah, you could have said, “Okay, I’m still disabled, but I’m a lot more functional. Maybe I could do TV reporting, print journalism.” Certainly, I would have thought you might be able to do or some kind of communications field. I can go back to maybe not my total old life, but parts of it. You could have gone that track, some kind of communications. But maybe it’s obvious, I don’t know, but what led you to say, “Okay, that was my old life. But I don’t know that I want to go back to it. I want to use what I’ve been through to help others.” I mean, maybe it sounds obvious to people in hindsight, but life is never that obvious. Why did you choose this track rather than some other track?

Chris L:
It’s a good question. I started getting involved in some volunteer work when I was in my early 20s. And one of them was in your area of the world, in Australia. I still consider one of the best experiences of my life. Surely, and I’ll be pretty honest.

Warwick F:
It’s all good.

Chris L:
So, shortly after I graduated college, I kind of going back to what I said earlier, I was always on the go. I always wanted to do things and then see, experience things in life. I was with a group of students, total strangers, but we lived basically in the bush in New South Wales near a town called Bermagui. And there was this wildlife center. It was the very beginning of this conservation camp. So we basically lived with no power, no running water, but we were starting to build this student conservation camp, which now… This was in 2004, years later it’s been created. But that was one of the first experiences that I had really started to do something that was bigger than myself, and been involved in something for a community and doing something that just felt more meaningful.

Chris L:
And then a year after that, I was living in Portland, Maine. I was working as a lobster fisherman in Portland, Maine and Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. And it was sort of the same thing where I actually enrolled a bunch of classes with the American Red Cross, and I actually went down to New Orleans in the middle of after Hurricane Katrina for a month and helped with some water distribution routes there. It became kind of… I don’t know… It was something where I think maybe back then the years before my injury, I always sort of started realizing doing something more meaningful, and then fast forward to my injury and what I went through, then all of a sudden, it was a cause that hit me personally, and I just had the whole, to use another journalism term, the fire in the belly to do something.

Chris L:
Then all of a sudden, and my family was the same way. My sister had run nonprofits before in the past. She remains a big part of NeuroHope, and then together we just said, “We have to do this. We have to do this for the community.” And that’s, so I think, that’s always sort of been in me too, a little bit to do something bigger than myself and now all of a sudden this gave me a vehicle to try to do that. But if I had great backing and support, and sacrificing initiative to do it all.

Warwick F:
One of the things we find in Crucible Leadership a lot and in my own life I find this, the crucibles you go through, they’re never fun what you went through was excruciating, physically, emotionally, mentally, soul destroying, something that could have been. But yet, somehow, when you use what you’ve been through to help others, it doesn’t make it all better but it gives… I know that you’ve obviously heard this a million times pain for a purpose. The pain never goes away. You’ve got life altering injuries, which will never totally go away. But yet, when you make meaning out of it somehow in some small way it makes life a little bit easier, a little bit purposed. Does that make any kind of sense? This is not an original thought, but by making meaning of what you went through, was that also a step in your at least emotional, spiritual recovery, if you will?

Chris L:
Yes. It gives you perspective on life that you wouldn’t have… That I wouldn’t have ever had, had I not gone through what I went through. Whether that’s appreciation for things. I was always appreciative. I don’t want to make it sound like I wasn’t, but it’s one of those things where it’s like you put struggles into perspective. You put things that have value in life into perspective. Whatever your crucible is kind of what you mentioned earlier, Gary, whether it’s a divorce that may shake you to your core, or whether it’s the death of someone, a loved one that may shake you to your core, whether it’s losing your business. You go through those trials in life. And when you come out on the other side, you never would have had that perspective of how your life can move forward if it never would have happened.

Gary S:
That sound you just heard listeners is the captain turning down the fasten seatbelt sign indicating it’s getting close to the time to land the plane. Before we do that, however, I would be remiss, Chris, if I did not give you the opportunity to let listeners know how they can find out more about you and about NeuroHope.

Chris L:
Yes, so NeuroHope, you can google us, NeuroHope, N-E-U-R-O NeuroHope. Plenty will come up but our website is neurohopewellness.org, and we’re also on Instagram at NeuroHope. We have a lot of inspiring patient stories there. I had talked about how in the beginning we were a small clinic but now I have a staff of nine and we’re a hybrid. We’re a mixture where we do physical therapy, we also do wellness. And we have an amazing group of staff and we’re helping a lot of people, not only in the rehabilitation part, but in wellness and fitness for people that are recovering from injuries and that live with paralysis.

Gary S:
Warwick, I’ll let you get the last question. But I want to ask one question off of Chris’s form that he gave us because it’s interesting, and I can tell you’re an old journalist, Chris, because there’s a question that we have on here. If we could only ask you what question, what would you want it to be? And you had a great question here. I’d love to hear it, and I’m sure our listeners would love to hear the answer. What are you most grateful for in the journey that we’ve just talked about?

Chris L:
I actually just answered it.

Gary S:
Fantastic.

Chris L:
Perspective. It was the perspective that my life and injury has made me aware of because I wouldn’t have had it before. Like I said, I still mourn parts of my own life. I wish I could play the drums again. I wish I could get on some water skis and snow skis again. I wish I could run again and play basketball again. I can’t do any of those things. But the perspective on life that I have now prior to my injury is something that I never would have had if I didn’t go through what I’ve been through.

Warwick F:
Wow. Well, Chris, thank you so much for being here. Your story is inspiring. I mean, you’ve got the inspiration that others who have been injured physically that never giving up. You never know where your plateau is. It could be where people think it is, or it could be beyond. Until you try you never know. So there’s the whole physical side. But there’s the emotional and spiritual comeback of realizing your life from a career perspective, or in general wasn’t over. You used your pain to help others get the benefit of what you went through.

Warwick F:
I think what listeners hopefully appreciate is pretty sure that your life, despite the physical challenges has joy in it when you get to work with patients and you get to see maybe that one twitch of a finger, or a thigh muscle, and they have hope. And they’re getting better day by day. That’s got to fill you with, I’m making a difference in people’s lives. I’m giving them opportunities they might not have had, otherwise. And so, when you spend your life for a cause you believe in, in service of others. I mean, that does add joy to your life. I mean, is that a fair summary of how you feel and your experience with NeuroHope and what you do now?

Chris L:
Yes, I see a lot of people that have had journeys similar to mine that our team works with every day. And our team is unbelievable. The therapist and the trainers we have, you watch how they work with patients day in and day out and how much they care, and how much they impact our patients’ lives. It’s remarkable. It’s definitely one of those things sometimes where you sit back and realize what NeuroHope has grown thanks to the staff, and the group that we’ve gone around the lives, they’ve changed is something that is pretty remarkable.

Gary S:
And also remarkable is the perfect landing of the plane that that comment brought us to, Chris. Thank you for that. Before we go though listener, there are three I think takeaways from today’s conversation with Chris Leeuw that I think we can all think about as we move on. Number one, engage your tribe. Chris hadn’t even given the details of his own life changing crucible in this discussion before he mentioned what a help his family has always been to him pre-crucible and post-crucible and he talked about it several times throughout this discussion. When setbacks and failures strike lean into those close to you, friends and family for comfort, pep talks, logistical and motivational assistance. It worked for Warwick in his case, it worked for Chris in his story that he just told, and pretty much every guest we’ve had on the show.

Gary S:
The second point and I’m going to… I’ve written this second point out with each word has a period after it so I slow it down when I say it because Chris made this point in his sheet that he gave to us. He also made it in our conversation. And that point is this. Do not let your crucible define you. There’s a season to dwell on your setback or failure, for sure. But don’t let it become nuclear winter. Don’t let it go on forever and be bleak forever. As Chris counsels, find the fortitude to move on, and you will. Give yourself time to heal and mourn if you need it. But also be sure to find some reasons to hope because we can guarantee you’re going to need that hope to move on beyond your crucible.

Gary S:
And the third point would be this, your vision for a life of significance after a crucible could very well be grown out of your crucible itself. From the perspective, as Chris pointed out that his crucible gave him came this life of significance of NeuroHope. We’ve seen this happen over and over again in the guests that we’ve talked to. In Warwick’s own story, we’ve seen that happen. The same thing happened to Chris. He worked hard to come back from paralysis. And now he advocates to help others come back from paralysis and raise money to help them do so. That is the very definition of a life of significance.

Gary S:
And speaking of a life of significance listeners, thank you for spending time with us. And we would ask that you remember that we understand as you understand that your crucible experiences are difficult, they are painful, they are traumatic. They can as we say, and as Chris says, change the trajectory of your lives. But here is the fantastic news, they are not the end of your story. They were not the end of Chris Leeuw’s story. They’re not the end of Warwick Fairfax’s story. They’re not the end of your story. They can be if you learn the lessons of them, if you internalize the perspective of them, they can be not the end of your story, but the beginning of a new chapter in your story that leads to the most rewarding conclusion you can possibly imagine. And that is a life of significance.

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