A Partnership in Motion

Photo of Natalie Barmhard.

Natalie Barnhard, president of Motion Project Foundation, with her furry friend Louie, at the Natalie Barnhard Center for Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation and Recovery in Buffalo, N.Y. Every detail in the 6,214-square feet facility was planned to accommodate the needs of the center’s clients.

Natalie Barnhard, president of Motion Project Foundation.

Natalie Barnhard, president of Motion Project Foundation.

In 2004, Natalie Barnhard was a 24-year-old physical therapist assistant and licensed massage therapist at the beginning of the career she’d always wanted when an accident at work instantly changed her life. One moment she was helping a patient, the next an improperly secured piece of exercise equipment weighing more than 600 pounds fell on her, crushing her neck and causing a spinal cord injury (SCI).

She spent the first week of her recovery in intensive care at the Erie County Medical Center breathing with the help of a ventilator. She was unable to speak for three months, and couldn’t perform even the simplest function.

Like many of the 18,000 patients who suffer an SCI in the United States each year, Natalie was stabilized and began her rehabilitation at a local hospital but was discharged before she had regained many of the everyday life skills she would need to move forward. Upon discovering that Western New York lacked the services she would require for extensive outpatient occupational and physical therapy, Barnhard moved to Atlanta to seek the comprehensive SCI treatment she needed. Seven years later, Barnhard returned home to Western New York, by then doing much for herself—her own makeup, feeding herself, brushing her teeth and washing her face—with mobility everywhere above her chest.

She also found her calling: using her unique perspective to truly change the lives of Western New Yorkers with SCIs and other neurological conditions. She is the founder and president of Motion Project Foundation Inc., and recently brought her vision to life with the opening of the Natalie Barnhard Center for Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation and Recovery launched in partnership with the University at Buffalo.

“Unlike typical fitness centers where you go to work out, we have state-of-the-art robotics, specialized equipment and one-on-one training to maximize recovery. Everything is designed for people with SCI or functional disabilities,” says Barnhard. “I made a commitment to UB because I believe that having a research university here in Western New York, working along with our center, helps position our region as a destination for innovative care for people with spinal cord injuries, no matter where they’re from.”

Working with input from Sue Ann Sisto, chair of the Department of Rehabilitation Science at UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions, Barnhard created a space that is as vibrant and inviting as her own personality. The partnership with UB leverages Barnhard’s extraordinary understanding of the need for such a facility coupled with the expertise of leading rehabilitation scientists at UB.

“When I came back to Buffalo, I felt alone. I didn’t know anyone else who had a spinal cord injury, or where I would go for the services I needed,” shares Barnhard. “Now, we have created a space where people can come for post-rehabilitative care, resources, advocacy and support. We want to get people back to living their best lives.”

Photo of Sue Ann Sisto.

Adding Rehabilitation Expertise

“Natalie dedicated her own financial resources to both opening this space and investing in a partnership with UB to help it flourish,” says Sue Ann Sisto (left). The symbiotic relationship between UB and the center, which to date has included Sisto bringing students in to observe treatments, helping to identify funding opportunities for equipment and programming, and providing guidance to the center’s trainers, is in the earliest stages, with more opportunities to come.