Like a Phoenix Rising
Natalie Barnhard’s relentless drive carries her through more than a decade of healing.
At 24 years old, Natalie Marie Barnhard had the world by the tail.
The bright, ambitious, New York resident, had just landed a job as a physical therapy assistant, obtained a massage therapy license, was on the hunt to buy a home and had a great boyfriend.
For as long as she could remember, Natalie’s passion had been helping others, and all of the hard work was paying off as she established a career in her chosen field.
But just three months after receiving her massage therapy license, while working at a local physical therapy practice, Natalie’s life took a turn that put her on a very different path.
The day that changed everything began like any other.
It was about an hour and a half into her shift at work, and Natalie was helping a patient on a leg extension machine. The machine, which was not bolted down properly, came crashing down onto Natalie – all 600 pounds of it. It took several people to free Natalie, who as she lay there, sensed that the damage to her body was catastrophic.
“Just from my background in physical therapy, I knew it was bad,” she recalls. “I couldn’t even feel the weight of my body on the ground.”
Natalie was taken to the hospital where she was placed in intensive care. Her neck had been crushed so severely that Natalie sustained C-5 spinal cord injury. Doctors told her she had a less than 5 percent chance of walking again.
The days and years that followed were painstaking. It was a time filled with long periods of stillness, anger and sadness, punctuated by hard-fought steps forward.
There were three months of not being able to speak because one of her vocal cords had been partially paralyzed. She spent one week on a ventilator, and it would be about three years before she would be able to perform even the simplest functions independently again.
Natalie began her recovery in Buffalo, New York, where she spent about two months before deciding to continue treatment at a facility that specialized in spinal cord injuries. She flew by medical jet to Shepherd Center.
“Coming to Shepherd Center was by far the best decision I ever made,” Natalie says. “They get you up and get you moving whether you like it or not.”
Looking back on this time, Natalie describes it as the most difficult journey of her life. But it took her to a place she never thought she’d be again – helping others to heal.
Natalie has spent about a decade focused on rehabilitation. After her initial, three-month inpatient treatment at Shepherd Center ended, she moved into a local hotel and continued recovery in the hospital’s Beyond Therapy® program.
“When she first got here, Natalie was significantly weak,” says Shepherd Center occupational therapist Patti Pasch. “She couldn’t move her arms very much, but over the course of time, her arms started getting stronger.”
During the time they worked together, Pasch says, there were triumphs and dips, as happens with all patients. But Natalie persevered.
Pasch taught Natalie to be the captain of her own ship, showing her how to do as much as possible independently.
“I used to say: ‘If I feed you a fish, I feed you for a day. If I teach you to fish, I feed you for a lifetime,’” Pasch recalls.
The message was received loud and clear. Natalie doggedly pursued recovery and over time began doing her own makeup again, brushing her teeth, feeding herself and washing her face.
She also improved her balance, strength and endurance, says exercise physiologist Gustavo Duran-Monge.
Ultimately, through all of her efforts, Natalie improved the quality of her life and grew more knowledgeable and self-directed.
“Natalie was someone who had a lot of drive prior to injury, who slowly rose up like a phoenix, to go beyond her injury,” Pasch says.
Today, Natalie has mobility everywhere above her chest and some mobility in her trunk.
But her story doesn’t end there.
At a juncture where some people might have recoiled from the world, focusing on the challenges before them, Natalie has chosen to reach out further, viewing her experience and injury as a platform from which she can make a change.
“My heart and vision is to take my knowledge from being a therapist, a healer, and my experience as the patient with an injury to help other people in our community who need and deserve the best care possible,” Natalie says. I want to use my unique perspective to truly change lives.”
Her drive to help others has taken many forms. An active member of the United Spinal Association, Natalie established a local chapter of the organization in order to bring more national resources to Buffalo’s spinal cord injury community. She is also the regional chapter coordinator.
Natalie regularly gives speeches and was recognized with a 2015 Women of Influence Award by Buffalo Business First. She also recently was given Distinguished Alumni awards at both Trocaire College and Villa Maria College, where she gave the commencement speech this past May.
Amid all of this, Natalie also started her own thriving foundation, Wheels With Wings, to encourage and advocate for people with spinal cord trauma, as well provide funding for the specialized medical care needed with such an injury.
“Knowing how difficult and costly it is to get the medical services you need after a spinal cord injury, I wanted to have an organization that could immediately help individuals who suffered this catastrophic injury by providing quality-of-life grants for things insurance would not pay for,” she says.
To date, Wheels with Wings has raised more than $200,000 and given away more than $150,000 in grants.
And still Natalie’s dreams have not been fully realized. Her sights are now set on creating a neurological recovery and wellness institute in western New York, a place where those with spinal cord injury can exercise and access various modalities to improve their health and wellness.
“I’ve had the privilege and the blessing of being able to go to numerous recovery centers,” Natalie explains. “Unfortunately, Buffalo does not have anything state of the art. Shepherd Center has inspired me to help people in my community. I feel that’s my purpose in life.”
Written by Mia Taylor
Photos by Phil Skinner
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 743 inpatients, 277 day program patients and more than 7,161 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.