A Journey of Recovery, Acceptance and Finding New Meaning


by | Mar 18, 2022 | blog

Losing Function and Independence

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to no longer move or feel? To lose function and independence, unable to perform the most basic daily tasks or functions?

Before October 22, 2004, I never had.

I was 24, a physical therapist assistant and a newly licensed massage therapist. My boyfriend and I had been together for over a year. I was looking to buy a starter home. Life was great.

That’s me on the right with my sister, Melissa, in early 2004, eight months before my injury.

But, on October 22, just another regular day at work, everything changed when a 600 lbs. exercise machine fell on me shattering two vertebrae in my neck.  From that moment on, my life would never be the same.

To say the months that followed were a challenge would be an understatement. I spent several months in a local trauma hospital on a ventilator, battling pneumonia and trying to medically stabilize.

I was an emotional wreck trying to wrap my mind around what had happened. Wondering why it happened. Wondering how I was supposed to live my life as a person who was paralyzed.

During my stay I told my parents that I wanted to go somewhere that offered more specialized care for spinal cord injuries. They found Shepherd Center, a private, not-for-profit hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, that specializes in rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injuries. After transferring there, I spent months learning about my injury and what to expect. They taught me how to be my own advocate and use my voice.

However, all I wanted to do was be home. If I could just be home this nightmare would be over, right? Well, not exactly.


Facing New Realities

Returning home, I realized that everything had changed; the facts of my new reality hit me hard. I’d never be able to work in my chosen field. I needed caregivers to help my parents take care of me. And because it was too hard for him, my boyfriend broke up with me. With all of this, I became angry. I felt so many emotions I’d never felt before. I had no idea what to do with all of these horrible feelings.

For the next year, I tried to do as much as I could to get better. I started counseling and continued physical therapy. Because the therapy wasn’t as specialized as I wanted, I decided to return Shepherd Center for their intensive, activity-based therapy program Beyond Therapy

I remained in Atlanta for nearly a decade, strictly living to work on my recovery. I made great gains and became part of a community surrounded by people who understood what I was going through. During that time I discovered my purpose in life, to help others going through the same thing.

After about 10 years, I returned home to Buffalo ready to pursue my new dreams. Little did I know another difficult transition was to follow.


Achieving Acceptance and Moving On

Recovery is a lifelong journey, but can’t be the only thing you do. It can’t consume every aspect of your life. It would be another tragedy not to live life or strive to do what you want to do or are called to do. It’s about finding a balance.

All those years of therapy helped keep hope alive inside me. But in leaving it behind to pursue other goals and dreams, I felt sad, like I was giving up. I wondered, could I heal more or is this it for me? Or, I wondered, am I just coming to the realization that I’ve gained all I could in my recovery? It was hard to know the answers to those questions. But, when I transitioned home, expecting to pick up my life and it didn’t happen, a new round of grief hit me.

I needed time to adjust in many ways. Because I was always in therapy I had the mindset of gaining more function, more strength, more movement, more, more, more. And, even though improvements were slow, it kept me healthy and in shape. But I realized that there one stage of grief I hadn’t gone through. That was acceptance.

Every part of my journey has led me to where I am today. I realized that the spinal cord injury/disabled (SCI/D) population needs health and wellness just as much, if not more, than the able-bodied community. So here I am, utilizing my experience, my education, along with everything I have learned to make a change in my community and be an advocate for my spinal cord injured friends. Today, I feel truly recovered even though I don’t have all of my function back, because I’m living my best life. I am finally truly LIVING.

I look forward to sharing more with you in the next blog about how my journey inspired me to establish a foundation and a new state-of-the-art recovery center. A place where people can feel part of a community and receive intense rehabilitation, support, resources, education, and more to recover and live their best life.


About Natalie Barnhard

Natalie Barnhard, PTA, LMT, is the president and founder of Motion Project Foundation, a non-profit organization in the Buffalo, New York area. Motion Project provides financial assistance for individuals recovering from a spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury and neurological disorders. A wheelchair user since she sustained a spinal cord injury in 2004, Natalie is also the founder and executive director of The Natalie Barnhard Center for Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation and Recovery.