By RICH McHUGH and LAUREN SHER
Six years ago, Janne Kouri was told he would never walk again after a freak accident diving into the ocean paralyzed him from the neck down, fracturing his spinal cord in two places.
Rather than take his devastating diagnosis at face value, Kouri never gave up hope, teaching his spine to function again, and reached milestones in his recovery doctors thought he'd never see: first, wiggling his toes, then gaining enough function in his legs to walk with a walker, and most recently, standing up on his own without a walker in February 2012.
"It's true that if you stay focused and work every single day, you really can do whatever you set your mind to," Kouri, 37, of Manhattan Beach, Calif., said in an interview with Robin Roberts in February 2012 after standing on his own for the first time. "The sky's the limit. We'll be walking one day soon."
Turning his tragedy into a life's work, Kouri started NextStep Fitness, a non-profit rehab facility in Los Angeles to help those with paralysis and other disabilities get affordable, cutting-edge training.
Therapy known as "loco-motor training," which teaches the spinal cord how to control motor functions like walking, through repetitive motion, helped Kouri get back on his feet, but his treatment options weren't always so bright.
After the Aug. 2006 accident, Kouri nearly died, twice, but his resolve only strengthened. With support from his now wife, Susan Kouri, who stayed at his side through it all, the two set out to find treatment options and decided to move to Louisville, Ky., to receive the intensive therapy at the Frazier Rehabilitation Institute - the only place where it was offered.
Loco-motor training has helped hundreds of spinal cord injury victims, including the late actor Christopher Reeve, who was among the first test subjects, but it was not available in California or anywhere west of the Mississippi, Kouri said.
"We brought this to my father and my family and my friends saying 'Hey, we need to do something about the situation. I can't find the type of treatment and rehab that I want in California," he said. "That means that nobody there can," he said.
Kouri's story of determination and strength first appeared on "Good Morning America" in July 2009.
"The amount of people that reached out to us afterwards is truly incredible," he said. "It resonated with so many people around the country going through similar situations … and other people being able to see that there is hope after injury."
Since then, NextStep has served the paralyzed and disabled community, rehabbing those who came from nearby and across the country to get access to the promising treatment.
Kouri recalls one man who drove across the country from his home in Maine to get therapy at NextStep after the ABC News report.
"There was a gentleman who had a very severe brain injury … One day I was sitting in the office and this guy came into the gym. His name is Jake, probably around 27 or 28, he just showed up at Next Step, he saw the story, hopped in his car and it took him close to a month, and he showed up at NextStep and said, 'I saw this story and I knew this is the place that I had to go.'"
Jake worked out at NextStep, got into much better physical shape, Kouri said, and ended up going back to Maine to return to school.
Kouri plans to expand NextStep across the country in Washington, D.C., but first in New York.
"We are opening a facility in New York in partnership with Stony Brook University at their Long Island campus. It's an amazing opportunity with us to be able to collaborate with such an esteemed university," he said, noting the facility will be attached to Stony Brook's Rehabilitation Research and Movement Performance (RRAMP) Laboratory, where paralysis research is conducted, and will likely open in the next 18 to 24 months.
The nonprofit wing of their organization has blossomed as well, launching the Wheelchair for a Day Challenge in a nationwide effort to raise awareness about the daily challenges associated with paralysis, and to raise funding to help build additional rehab centers across the country. The first-ever challenge raised over $90,000, he said.
"There are so many people in desperate need of help and don't have access to a facility like NextStep and are struggling in so many ways," he said.
Soon enough that will change, if Kouri has anything to say about it.
- Physical Disabilities