Words can't express the joy Christan Zaccagnino felt one morning in 2009 when she experienced something most people take for granted every day.
Zaccagnino, who was paralyzed from the waist down when she broke her spine during a diving accident in a Port Chester pool in 1993, had feeling in the back of her legs for the first time in more than 15 years. The incredible progress, she said, is thanks to developments in spinal cord procedures she hopes to advance in the United States.
"I got a lot back," she said. "I had more knee movement, more movement in my abdomen, I was able to get out of bed myself, get into a car myself, I was able to stand without the assistance of leg braces."
The results only confirmed Zaccagnino's belief that a cure will exist in her lifetime allowing her to leave her wheelchair behind and walk again. She is so confident in advancements in spinal surgeries that she co-founded the Fight to Walk Foundation to raise money for spinal cord research. She is joined by co-founder Boyd Melson, a Captain in the U.S. Army Reserves, professional boxer and military boxing champion.
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The two met about 10 years ago while Melson, a White Plains High School graduate, was a cadet at West Point Military Academy. The two dated for about six years and, while their relationship ultimately ended, they remain very close. Melson, 30, dedicates all of his fight winnings and a substantial amount of his time to the cause despite never suffering a spinal injury himself. He even wears the words "Fight to Walk" on the front of his shorts while in the ring.
"It's the most important thing in my life," said Melson, who added his relationship with Zaccagnino and experience with soldiers returning from overseas with spinal injuries educated him to the effect a spinal injury has on a person's life.
"Your a prisoner to your body, you're a prisoner in your wheelchair," Melson said. "It's not just about being able to walk or feel parts of your body, or move parts of your body, it takes away your life's independence."
Sponsored partially by Melson's winnings, the Fight to Walk Foundation hopes to spread the word about advances in spinal surgery and to ultimately to raise money for clinical trials in the United States.
Zaccagnino's improvements in 2009 came following a surgery in China, during which she received new technique of spinal surgery on her spine.
The surgery involved cells taken from nose shavings that were injected into her back. At the time such procedures were illegal in the United States, banned during the Bush administration's block on stem cell research. Because the procedure was legal in China, Zaccagnino traveled east for two separate operations during her quest to walk again. With the ban on certain types of stem cell use lifted under the Obama administration, Fight to Walk is working to raise money to advance the work of Dr. Wise Young as he attempts to advance local stem cell use in the United States.
"I've always felt if there was going to be a cure (Young) was going to be the one to do it," Zaccagnino said.
Although the ban on stem cell research has been lifted, there is still an incredible price tag that comes with the clinical trials. Zaccagnino said she is hopeful that sometime this year Fight to Walk will help fund trials for 20 people. But at a cost of about $100,000 per-person, boxing victories won't be enough.
To move the funding forward, Melson is supporting justadollarplease.org, asking people to offer a single dollar to help move forward the research. He has also hoped for a celebrity, news outlet or spokesperson to come forward to support the charity, but hasn't had much luck so far.
"That's been the biggest challenge, just exposure," he said.
There is also the ethical debate over stem cell use. Some forms of stem cell use, specifically embryonic stem cell use, have been condemned because of their use of human embryos for scientific development. Although the technique to be used in the clinical trials involve stem cells from umbilical cords, the stigma of the word "stem cell" leaves some uneasy.
Zaccagnino said part of her work, and reason for sharing her story, is to inform people of the difference.
"A lot of people don't know a lot about stem cells, and they automatically think fetal stem cells, and that's very controversial," she said.
There have also been negative comments from doctors and others suffering from spinal cord injuries along the way. Zaccagnino said she has been urged several times to accept her life in a wheelchair and move on.
"That's just not who I am," she said. "My goal in life is to walk, nobody is ever going to take that away from me. Whatever I have to do to get there, I'm going to do."
Zaccagnino and Melson intend to move the process forward this summer; one dollar, one donation and one fight at a time.