By ANGELA JEFFS
Founded in 1995, the Japan Spinal Cord Foundation (provisional, since members are still raising the money necessary to legalize the foundation) has just achieved a major breakthrough. For months, members had been trying to make contact with an established similar organization, the American Paralysis Association, based in New Jersey and headed by actor Christopher Reeve. Reeve, you may remember, was thrown from his horse several years ago and rendered quadriplegic, meaning his spinal cord is so badly damaged that he has little to no control over his body from the neck down, and is unable to use any of his limbs. gWefd been phoning, faxing and e-mailing APA with no success. Then just a few days ago we had an initial response,h said JSCF(P) international relations chief coordinator Tamio Hirose at a recent monthly meeting of the organization in Ikegami, Ota Ward, Tokyo. gOur aim is the same: to support others like ourselves and raise funds for spinal regeneration research. We want to organize exchanges, invite Christopher Reeve to visit Japan. Being so well known here, he could really help promote awareness.h Hirose, a former pilot with Japan Airlines, has been a statistic in spinal cord injuries for 25 years. Involved in a car accident in Anchorage, Alaska, he was rendered paraplegic, losing the use of his legs and all sensation from the waist down. JSCF(P) reports that there are 100,000 spinally injured people in Japan, with 5,000 new cases every year. This compares with 450,000 individuals in America challenged by varying degree of paralysis, to which 10,000 are added annually. Almost half of such impairments are caused by traffic accidents. Hideaki Takahashi, for example, crashed his motorbike in his 20s, and now is not only paraplegic, but has to wear dark glasses to protect his weak eyes. Living alone near Ikegami Station, he tries to maintain as active a life as possible, with the help of a daily caretaker. Sports injuries can also change a personfs life in a micro-second. JSCF(P) chairman Makoto Ohama was left quadriplegic after playing rugby in his youth. Now he uses a special wheelchair, turning pages of books and documents with a pointer held in his mouth, and running meetings with a quiet, humorous diplomacy. Damage results when an injury compresses the spinal cord, directly damaging the thin cable protected by the vertebra of the spinal column. The extent of paralysis depends on the severity and location of the damage. If the site of the injury is at waist level, only movement below this area is lost. But the closer to the brain, the more extensive the loss. This is because the spinal cord is organized in segments, each of which controls specific signals that move between the brain and the rest of the body. Until recently, any such injury was regarded as incurable. In Japan, when a person is hospitalized, they may be told that there is nothing that can be done and any form of rehabilitation is a waste of time. Informed only that bedsores will be a major problem, they are often discharged early into the care of a family still in shock. Even if dischargees can live with their family, they are totally dependent on those family members. Often this demands great sacrifice ? the giving up of a job or the renunciation of marriage. Even if they can get a job, there are the difficulties of traveling and looking after themselves. Medical and social care systems for the challenged are still poor in Japan, with insufficient back-up. As Hirose noted, gIn some developed countries, even if on a respirator, those with spinal injuries can go to college, pursue careers and lead married lives.h The situation is improving. There is a call for a national center for the treatment and rehabilitation of spinal cord victims, like Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the U.K. And in February, Michael Winter, associate administrator for budget and policy at the U.S. Federal Transit was invited to Japan from Washington to advise on improving transportation facilities for the challenged. (It was Winterfs secretary who coordinated with the APA, effecting a response.) gWhile no longer invisible to the public, most spinal cord injured are clutching at straws in small associations and support groups all over the country,h said paraplegic Akira Tsumaya, of Spinal Injuries Japan, and a founding member of JSCF(P). gWe believe solidarity will give us a stronger, more effective voice.h Members are actively following any research being conducted into cell regeneration, which means the possibility that one day the spinal cord might be able to repair itself, restoring movement. Only last week, it was reported that a new technique being developed at the University of Texas involving a sticky chemical and a calcium bath may help severed nerve endings grow back together. Scientists had always thought that nerve cells could not be regrown once they had been severed, but many recent experiments worldwide have shown this not to be true. Such news offers enormous hope to the paralyzed and anyone with nerve damage. JSCF(P) will be officially launched on Oct. 2. Under the slogan gStand Up 21,h members are trying to coordinate efforts around the country, offering support and encouragement and organizing fundraising events toward research in Japan. gIn addition to a regular newsletter, wefre organizing a lecture in Omiya on June 6 for the spinal cord injured concerning sexual matters,h said Hirose. gBut most of our energies are going into the launch of JSCF into the 21st century, with a plan so big and comprehensive that we need a lot of help. After all, most of us are severely injured.h The group needs financial support and patronage from as many sources as possible. We all take our bodies and the gift of freedom of movement for granted. It is worth remembering that in the time it takes to blink, a life can be changed so profoundly. After all, if it can happen to Superman (who against obstacles continues to live up to his name), it can happen to any of us.