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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Rewriting the Book on Spinal Cord Injury

Francesco ClarkOn a June night eight years ago, Francesco Clark ’00 lay in a New York hospital with a spinal cord injury and collapsing lungs, fully conscious as he listened to his neurosurgeon's forecast: Forget about your arms and legs, you'll never breathe on your own, you'll never speak, and you're probably going to die. His mother, who was in the room, demanded that her son move something. But the surgeon told him to stay still and avoid doing further damage. "Clearly," she said, "you don't know Francesco."

Earlier that night, he had dived into a swimming pool that was poorly lit and too shallow. Just 24 years old, he had shattered his C4 vertebra, located in the back of the head, several vertebrae above the neck's base. His level of injury predicted quadriplegia and a lifelong dependence on a ventilator.

But Francesco Clark is on the road to what some believe could be a full recovery.

On June 1, his book hits the stands. Walking Papers: The Accident That Changed My Life and the Business That Got Me Back on My Feet (Hyperion) recounts his journey from the accident in 2002 to his current life as a business owner, a national ambassador for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, and a model for stem cell surgery and alternative therapies. The book is one stop along a path that he began as an editorial assistant at magazines such as Harper's Bazaar. What stands out most about this intense journey, though, is Clark's insistence on, so to speak, rewriting the book on spinal cord injuries.

All along, his family, with whom he has lived since the accident, has helped him to find nontraditional approaches to healing. His father is a doctor trained in Western medicine and alternative medicine, and his mother is a nutritionist and phlebotomist. From the first days after the accident, in the intensive care unit, Clark did things differently. Not fond of the ICU's breathing machine and exercises-- "The exercises were boring," he says--he invented another therapy. He sang for five hours a day—"loudly, horribly"—until his breathing was back to normal.

In 2004, he traveled to Beijing for stem cell surgery so that glial cells, derived from stem cells, could be injected one vertebra above and below his injury. Working with three different therapists, he does about five hours of physical therapy each day, and he keeps abreast of the latest research. "I'm using everything we know about injuries and stroke, and also how children develop physically so their nerves grow," says Clark.

Indeed, Clark's nerves are regrowing. As part of a robotic arm study with MIT and Cornell, Clark put his right arm into a robot for virtual reality exercises. To the doctors' delight, after nine weeks, not only had his right arm improved, but his left arm also showed marked improvement. He has participated in other types of research, too, such as trans-cranial continual muscle stimulation, in which parts of his brain are targeted with an electric current to stimulate specific nerves.

Clark can now move his triceps, use his wrist, feel heat and cold in his legs, and he's starting to use his abdomen and back muscles. "I'm not doing it to prove my doctors wrong," says Clark. "But I know that I'm getting better; we look at data, and there's hard empirical evidence that my nerves are regrowing."

The death of Christopher Reeve marked a milestone in Clark's recovery. "When [Reeve] passed away, I made a pact to do more for people with disabilities," Clark says. Wanting to be more social, he says he looked in a mirror for the first time in three years. Because his skin had stopped reacting to heat and cold and he couldn't sweat, his pores were clogged and his face broken out. With his father, a homeopath, he experimented with botanical extracts, essential oils, and vitamins, until they created products that cleared up his skin entirely. Clark's Botanicals (www.clarksbotanicals.com), born in his parents' kitchen and now based near his home in Bronxville, N.Y., is patronized by not only an impressive list of celluloid celebrities but also by first lady Michelle Obama, who recently wrote a letter of support to the Clarks.

"This is not just a beauty line, this is my life," says Clark, who notes that he is committed to the scientific justification of every ingredient. One of his products uses stem cells derived from a type of Swiss apple picked nearly to extinction; plant stem cells, especially from apples, are adept at replenishing human skin cells, he explains, and Clark's is the first skin care product to use stem cells. Every product is free of parabens (which are suspected of elevating estrogen and therefore cancer risk) and stimulates immune responses that protect and preserve skin. The company's profits support further research into spinal cord injury.

"Nothing in my recovery has been traditional," says Clark, who makes regular public appearances as an ambassador for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. He credits his undergraduate work for helping to develop his independent spirit. "Hopkins made me stronger in that it gave me a sense that I could fight at something and think outside the box, but still do it in a smart and aggressive way." A double major in international studies and Romance languages, Clark studied with Meme Irwin. "She took me under her wing, always pushed me for more, beyond just Italian studies."

Clark expects ever more muscular and neurological recovery. "Plus, I'm living my life so well now," he says. "I love what I do."