IPS: IRL: Working to cure paralysis

Former Indy Racing League IndyCar Series driver and owner of the champion's Menards Infiniti Pro Series car driven by Thiago Medeiros, Sam Schmidt isn't one to give up. Despite the death of Christopher Reeve, the actor and activist paralyzed...

Former Indy Racing League IndyCar Series driver and owner of the champion's Menards Infiniti Pro Series car driven by Thiago Medeiros, Sam Schmidt isn't one to give up.

Despite the death of Christopher Reeve, the actor and activist paralyzed by a riding accident who dedicated his life to finding a cure for paralysis, Schmidt and his self-named foundation are carrying on the work of Reeve. He's carrying on with sadness at the loss of a man whom he got to know at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year and with whom he became close as the duo battled to raise public awareness of the number of people who are affected by paralyzing incidents in life.

Speaking at Texas Motor Speedway this afternoon, Schmidt introduced 27-year- old Austin, TX native Susan Rebecca Fajt (pronounce it "fight") who, too, suffered a severe spinal injury and was paralysis in an auto accident yet has recovered the use of her legs through stem cell extraction.

Susan had to travel to Portugal in June of 2002 for her treatment, due to arcane US laws and the political nature of stem cell research in this country, she revealed. Injured in November of 2001, Susan "pursued all avenues of research to live my life," she declared, sitting in a wheelchair with her legs crossed, then uncrossed. "I recovered the ability to walk and to feel my toes," she said.

In the United States the battle over stem cell research is mostly concerned with embryonic cells. In Fajt's case, the cells used were her own olfactory stem cells. Surgeons in Portugal extracted them and placed these cells in her back the, as she put it "let nature take its course."

After two months she began to have feeling in her limbs and she has continued rehabilitation near and in her Texas home. As she uses cross- trainers to increase mobility, Fajt has opened her program to assist others in combination therapies for the greater benefit of local Texans afflicted with similar difficulties.

Schmidt and Fajt met just prior to their press conference and, while Sam hasn't "been able to take advantage of stem cell research yet," he is adamant about promoting the adoption of stem cell research in the United States for his on-going battle to regain mobility.

"The loss of Christopher Reeve last Sunday has made this a really tough week for me," Schmidt revealed. "We came from such diverse backgrounds: he grew up cultured and refined; I grew up at the race track." Both Reeve and Schmidt, though, united through their passion to see cures affected for paralysis.

"I was so proud of the amount of energy he put out to help others with spinal cord injuries and his loss leaves an extremely large hole to fill," Schmidt said sadly. "He really put a lot of pressure on researchers and lit a lot of fires under people. [Until Reeve came along], there was nobody else with the energy and ability to get attention" for the plight of paralyzed Americans.

Stem cell research is, of course a hot topic in the United States and one that polarizes people. "Embryonics are such a touchy subject," Schmidt confirmed. "There's so much controversy in the United States that the subject of stem cell research has become almost taboo."

"Rather than trashing stem cells," Fajt broke in, "we should use them. It's possible to use stem cells to help people like us; scientists tell us that. Christopher Reeve's death will make our movement stronger," she believes.

Schmidt has likened the debate over stem cell research to what occurred in the 1970s when in vitro fertilization was the debated topic in scientific circles. "We have the same type of situation now with stem cell research," and he believes that 30 years from now people might look back and recall these debates with incredulity.

"It's great to see someone so positively affected by stem cell research like Susan," Schmidt noted, even as he talked about different states' efforts to fund this type of scientific study. "California's Proposition 71 would give $250 million to stem cell research," Schmidt said.

"When big companies can make money from this type of research it will [likely] be adopted," he revealed. And people like Sam Schmidt and Susan Fajt agreed that, if a cure for paralysis were found, "we'll pay whatever it takes."

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Series IndyCar , Indy Lights
Drivers Sam Schmidt , Thiago Medeiros