It was Aug. 5, 2006 and newly-minted South Bay resident Janne Kouri was enjoying a seemingly perfect afternoon at the beach with friends.
The avid athlete, then 31-years-old, had just finished a game of volleyball when he decided to cool off with a quick dip in the ocean.
“I went for a swim, like I did every other day,” Kouri remembers. “I dove into a wave and hit my head on a sandbar.”
The next thing Kouri knew, he was floating on his back, unable to move—thinking this could be the end of his life.
Fortunately, someone rushed into the water and pulled him to safety.
But, Kouri was completely paralyzed, having broken two vertebrae in his neck.
He spent two months in intensive care, battling pneumonia and nearly died, twice.
Medical experts gave Kouri a grim prognosis.
“My doctors told me I had no hope for recovery and I would never be able to live independently,” he said.
The former All-American football player for Georgetown University was shocked to discover a general lack of long term rehabilitation facilities in California. He noted most health insurers only allow a limited window of access for those suffering with lifetime disabilities.
“The problem right now in the U.S. and around the world, is the insurance, on average, gives you 36 days of rehab and then you’re sent home without access to any type of rehab or fitness for the rest of your life,” he explained.
Kouri and his then-girlfriend, Susan, began searching the nation for a better answer.
The pair discovered Dr. Susan Harkema of the Frazier Rehabilitation Facility in Louisville, Ky.
Harkema, a preeminent rehab specialist, told Kouri evidence-based research indicated he could recover.
She had developed a program of activity-based rehabilitation, called locomotor training, where patients are suspended from a weight-bearing harness while trainers move their arms and legs.
Kouri and Susan moved to Kentucky to participate in Harkema’s program.
“I saw amazing results when I worked with her,” he explained, noting he was able to move his toe within four months after his injury, a landmark moment.
Taking the Next Step
Kouri’s life since his accident has been about defying limits .
The now 43-year-old has since married Susan and leads a relatively independent life, requiring only minimal assistance.
“In the mornings, I get help from a nurse but then I’m independent the rest of the day,” he said, noting he is able to drive and get around with the help of his electric wheelchair, called a Permobil. “It’s challenging but I’m just as happy as I ever was prior to my injury. It was a gift in disguise that has given me a true passion in my life.”
Kouri’s experience with Dr. Harkema’s therapy inspired him to help others to find affordable rehabilitation.
“It was when I was going through my own personal journey through the healthcare system that I learned about all the challenges people are facing,” Kouri explained.
“There is 6 million people in the U.S. that live with paralysis, so it’s a big number - roughly one in every 50 people” he added, citing a statistic from the Christopher and Dana Reeves Foundation. “Without that access (to ongoing rehabilitation), it’s very likely you’re going to suffer from secondary complications that could be life threatening whether that be heart disease, diabetes, poor circulation or blood pressure. That’s where the idea for NextStep came in.”
When Kouri returned home to the South Bay, he opened NextStep Los Angeles in June 2009 in Lawndale. The rehab center offers affordable, activity-based therapy programs for patients with spinal cord injuries, stroke, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s and other neurological conditions.
“We took what was offered at the best hospital-based rehabilitation center...and put it into a community setting so when your insurance drops you, you can still have access to all those therapies and rehabilitation services,” Kouri explained.
Now, more than a decade later, NextStep has expanded to a total of seven locations nationwide, but Kouri isn’t stopping there.
“Our mission now is to continue to expand across the country and bring NextStep to those who don’t have facilities like ours. That’s really where the idea for this roadtrip came in.” Kouri said.
Cross country 'Ride for Paralysis'
On March 10, Kouri will embark on a cross country 'Ride for Paralysis' from coast to coast, wheeling in his Permobil and a Bowhead, a special bicycle created for people with paralysis.
The journey, expected to span 14 cities in just over two months, will culminate in Washington D.C. May 15.
Kouri will travel roughly 60 miles per day. And, he's been doing core strength workouts to prepare.
He will be wheeling alongside friends, as well as a documentary filmmaker.
His mission is to raise awareness about the lack of affordable rehabilitation services for people living with paralysis.
“It’s obviously to raise awareness of the paralysis problem, but also to raise funds to support NextStep here locally but also to support our expansion to new communities,” he said, noting the fundraising goal of half a million dollars.
He also hopes to educate people across the country.
“Only in two of the cities that I’m visiting is there an actual NextStep facility,” Kouri said of his planned route, which includes stops in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia.
“I’m trying to...kind of stick a stake in the ground, meet with influential individuals in those cities to get them to understand what we are trying to do and then hopefully help me bring NextStep to those communities.”
Kouri said the journey will also include events along the way, such as a glamping for paralysis in Joshua Tree, Calif., a Major League Baseball spring training benefit in Phoenix, Ariz. and a charity concert in Nashville, Tenn.
“We’ll be doing daily social media posts and weekly video diaries,” he explained.
You can follow Kouri's progress at @NextStepLA on Instagram or by visiting the company’s website at nextstepfitness.org.
The community is invited to send Kouri’s team off from the Manhattan Beach pier at 9:30 a.m. March 10.