Category Archives: SCI Superstars

SCI Superstar: Mackenzie Saunders

Automobile accidents and sports injuries may make up most of the spinal cord injuries that occur each year, but for Mackenzie Saunders, her low, incomplete injury falls on the rare side after an unexpected soccer injury. Injured when she was just 11 years old, she worked incredibly hard to walk again. Now, 9 years later, she’s a walking paraplegic and has even bigger dreams outside of physical return. Mackenzie recently was accepted to Harvard Law School, where she wants to change the world as a lawyer.

Why She’s Fearless

“I was the youngest person in the inpatient rehabilitation program, by far,” says Mackenzie about her time in rehab following her soccer injury in 2009. She was just 11 years old. “I was playing a club soccer game when I was knocked down by an opposing player. I fell down, fracturing my tailbone upon impact. I got right back up and played for 20 more minutes. After those 20 minutes, my legs started burning and getting really weak.” After going home with her parents, her symptoms progressed and within hours, Mackenzie lost all feeling and movement below the waist.

“It took the doctors 2 days to get me an MRI and diagnose the fracture in my tailbone and the spinal contusion that caused my paralysis.” Mackenzie was diagnosed with an S-5 incomplete injury. Within two months, she was back home and eager to return to her school who supported her in the transition. By high school, she could walk with AFO’s, a form of orthotic braces that support the ankle and foot. She still, however, can’t jump or run. “Standing is difficult for me, as well; I avoid standing for long periods of time.”

“I used to be incredibly athletic.” Mackenzie reflects on how hard the loss of playing sports was in her life. ”It was the biggest part of my life. But I have found other things that I really enjoy, such as legal work, speech and debate coaching, and taking on leadership positions in different organizations.”

What’s Next?

Once Mackenzie graduated from high school, she enrolled at Arizona State University, which is where she had the revelation of going to law school. “Speech and debate has really fueled my love for public speaking and argumentation, and it wasn’t until my sophomore year in college when I finally realized I should go into law.” While coaching a middle school debate team, one of her students gave her the idea. “He just said it so matter-of-factly, like, ‘You WILL be a lawyer, and you will be good at it.’ I realized, wait, he’s right! I would be a good lawyer! I should do that!’”

And that is exactly what Mackenzie is currently on her way to doing. She will be attending Harvard Law School in 2022. “After my injury, I thought I wanted to go into politics so I could change policy and laws around disability. I’ve always wanted to help people who are disabled, just like me. But I later realized that I don’t need to be a politician in order to change policy; I can be a lawyer.”

“I never thought I would actually be accepted to Harvard Law, but then I took the LSAT for the second time in November and actually got the score I needed to be qualified (174).” This law school is of particular interest to Mackenzie based on Harvard’s reputation as a leading resource for disability rights law. In looking to gain experience in this area before entering law school, Mackenzie has taken on a summer internship as part of her undergraduate studies at Arizona State University.

She is working alongside attorney Kelley Brooks Simoneaux, a paraplegic who founded The Spinal Cord Injury Law Firm, the nation’s only firm of its kind. Kelly was thrilled to hear of Mackenzie’s acceptance into Harvard Law School. “Mackenzie has been a wonderful asset to the Spinal Cord Injury Law Firm.  Her personal experience with a spinal cord injury has given her a unique understanding to better serve our clients and firm.  Not only is she an incredibly gifted mind who works very hard, but she is also a wonderful person that I know will go on to do amazing things in our community.  Her admission to Harvard Law School is no surprise to me after working with her and I am very excited to watch where this wonderful education will take her in law and beyond. Mackenzie will be the next generation of lawyers with disabilities fighting for the rights of the disability community.”

Mackenzie conducts investigatory research for the cases that Kelley is involved with, tracks policy issues regarding disability rights and helps run the social media for The Spinal Cord Injury Law Firm.

Her Law Aspirations

Naturally, Mackenzie is interested in practicing disability rights law once she becomes a practicing attorney. “I want to get into the nitty-gritty policy stuff,” she says. “Like reforming the ADA and working with Congress to create new, beneficial policy for those with disabilities. I really enjoy litigation and trial advocacy as well, so I’m sure I’ll be doing both of those things and representing clients with disabilities while I fight for policy reform.”

And she has her eyes set on the biggest prize of them all for any lawyer – the Supreme Court. “My dream is to be a Supreme Court Justice someday.” Dreaming big is why we love having Mackenzie part of our team. “I’ll be taking two gap years after I graduate from Arizona State to gain some work experience before I start attending law school in 2022. I would then graduate with my J.D. in 2025.”

SCI Superstar: Brook McCall

A tale of two lives is often the story of people who’ve experienced a spinal cord injury – the life before their injury and their life afterwards. For Brook McCall, the Grassroots Advocacy Manager for the United Spinal Association, this is definitely the case. While a severe spinal cord injury may have changed the life path she was on, she simply went back to the drawing board and made a new path for herself. But that’s not all.

McCall has been living her life on her own terms since her injury. From retooling her career path to becoming a rising advocate in the disability community, read on for Brook’s story; a quadriplegic, an advocate and a woman with tight fashion-sense.

Why She’s Fearless

Growing up in San Luis Obispo, California, McCall was active in sports, but she also had a love of fashion that she decided to foster at the University of California at Santa Barbara and working at Nordstrom. And by her senior year, she had job opportunities in New York City as a retail buyer. Unfortunately, these dreams were put on hold in 2002 when she broke her neck the day before her senior year. “I accidentally locked myself out of my house and the neighbor suggested I climb over from his balcony. It seemed easy enough, but my hand slipped at the last moment and I fell backwards headfirst on to the driveway below.”

Her injury was a C4 complete, which means she was left with only a small ability to move her shoulder. “I have no functional arm movement at all except a devastating shoulder shrug. My level of functioning and sensation have never changed or improved, at all. Sometimes I wonder if my lack of gains alleviated some of those early day struggles. It took me no time at all to realize that if I wanted something, I was going to have to get very used asking for the help I required.”

Despite the frustrations of needing assistance for most activities now, McCall has only done one thing – focus on the future – which included figuring out how to live as a quadriplegic as quickly as she could. “I was impatient to get back to my life or at least some semblance of the life I had before. I like to think of myself as a realistic optimist generally, but in this instance, it may have just been more of a blind optimism. Internally, I felt frustrated with the fears and warnings from clinicians, family, and those around me that getting back to where I was would be likely impossible.”

And she’s firmly believed she could still do what she wanted in life in spite of her injury. After four months in the hospital, she was ready to go back to school and she transferred to the University of California San Diego with the goal of become a doctor. Soon however she changed her career path again, this time to public health. “In grad school, I remember distinctly that we learned briefly about advocacy, but the professor’s take away was that not enough people are doing it and how impactful the advocate for all is. That really resonated, and as someone with a disability I knew my voice had elevated value because not only did I have training, but I had experience.”

And this is what inspired her to apply to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she was accepted to pursue a Master’s degree in Public Health. McCall received a scholarship from the Swim with Mike Foundation, which is one of the most generous scholarship programs for people with spinal cord injuries in the country (any former athlete with a spinal cord injury can apply). McCall graduated with her Master’s degree in 2014.

What’s Next?

After graduating, McCall didn’t miss a beat. “I moved to Oregon right after finishing up grad school to do a post-grad fellowship at Oregon’s Health and Science University.” After a missed job opportunity there, she continued to look for work, but was unable to find anything suitable. “I could feel employers’ trepidation in trusting if I could fulfill the role. It was the largest challenge I had felt yet.” McCall began to develop relationships with the Portland spinal cord injury community as a result, which led to making a close friend who worked for the United Spinal Association.

“He encouraged me to attend our Roll on Capitol Hill event where I experienced the power of advocating alongside others from across the country and got to meet the staff. When a job on the policy team opened up, he helped make the connection and the rest is history.” Brook is able to work from home as well. In her position, she organizes advocacy representatives in all 54 chapters of organization. She also helps develop legislation relationships in local areas. “I like being able to help others tell their stories and feel that their voice matters, because it does.”

“The funny thing is, during my fellowship and my long year of questioning what my future would look like, many people asked me what my ideal job would look like. What I described was very close to the role I have now. So, I love Portland because I have found such a beautiful community here and it’s green and beautiful.”

When she’s not working, McCall is often outside on the plentiful accessible hiking trails near her home, hanging out with friends or her dog Boone. She also has her eye on further involvement in the evolution of adaptive fashion. “My original plan was to go into fashion and I didn’t think there was room for me in that world as a person with a disability. I like that I think the opposite now and know that my voice and experience as someone who needs help getting dressed, but loves clothing, would be welcome in the discussion.”

– Brook’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ohbrook/?hl=en

– Brook’s blog: https://www.facebook.com/spinalcoordinated