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One Step at a Time

Posted by on Wednesday, July 9, 2014 in Peabody People, Summer 2014.

Jessica Harthcock never gave up when doctors said she was unlikely to walk again. (Photo by Susan Urmy)

Jessica Harthcock was 17 and a competitive springboard diver when a practice dive into a pit of foam blocks ended in tragedy. Hitting her head on the side of the pit, Harthcock fractured her neck and back and damaged her spinal cord, resulting in paralysis from the chest down.

After surgery, she faced a long road of rehabilitation. Specialists at several top institutions said she would never walk again, but Harthcock refused to accept her prognosis. With the help of her parents, she tenaciously sought out emerging therapies that might restore her mobility.

“A spinal cord injury changes your life in an instant. You need someone to step in and say, ‘Let me help.’”

—Jessica Harthcock

At Frazier Rehab Institute in Louisville, Kentucky, she enrolled in a research study that involved gait-training therapy several days a week. Next, at Chicago’s NextSteps treatment center, she pursued Lokomat therapy, in which patients are supported in a harness above a treadmill while a robot-assisted device moves their legs through a gait pattern. Nearly three years after her injury, Harthcock took her first step.

Using forearm crutches, Harthcock enrolled at Louisiana State University to complete her undergraduate degree in public relations, then pursued a master’s in organizational leadership at Peabody.

Over the years, patients with similar injuries began seeking her advice on which therapies they might pursue, and Harthcock hoped to take on this advisory role in a more permanent way.

“My professors helped me apply what I was learning to a business plan,” Harthcock said. “Being at Peabody taught me how to think in new ways.”

With the help of $15,000 from Jumpstart Foundry, a business accelerator program housed at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, Harthcock founded Utilize Health in May 2013. The Nashville-based online company’s mission is to match patients with neurological disabilities to the specialized therapies and facilities they need. Last fall, Utilize Health was one of six finalists in the $1 million Global Food and Health Innovation Challenge.

“A spinal cord injury changes your life in an instant,” Harthcock said. “You’re dealing with so much as a patient that you need someone to step in and say, ‘Let me help.’ ”

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