TRACK CHIC's Woman behind the Wheels - Cody Unser l Cody Unser First Step Foundation


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Atlanta, May 4, 2010: The Unser family is known for producing champions, and Cody Unser is no exception. Track Chic, the social phenomenon for motorsports forgotten female fans, features her story this month as our Woman behind the Wheels. Cody’s generous spirit and the amazing work of the Cody Unser First Step Foundation are truly inspiring.

Cody Unser, granddaughter of 4-time Indy Winner, Al Unser, Sr. and the daughter of 2-time Indy Winner Al Unser, Jr. and “Super Mom“ Shelley Unser, shares the amazing journey of her diagnosis of Transverse Myelitis, (TM), that paralyzed her at the young age of 12 to now sharing hope and healing through her Cody Unser First Step Foundation (www.CUFSF.org). With the generous help of racing legend, Bobby Labonte, (Benefactor and Honorary Chair), the Foundation also addresses the cause, rehabilitation, prevention and cure for TM and freely affiliates with other medical, charitable and corporate entities to achieve their goals.

Through Cody’s Great Scuba Adventure and Operation Deep Down Dive, the foundation shares the mental and physical therapeutic benefits of scuba diving with others suffering from spinal cord injuries, neurological disorders, and physical disabilities. The Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) has also partnered with CUFSF to bring Adaptive Scuba to disabled veterans.

Cody’s journey began the late afternoon of Friday, February 5, 1999, Cody was at 6th grade basketball practice in Albuquerque when she began to feel excessively tired, had difficulty catching her breath, developed a pounding headache and her legs felt heavy, numb and “tingly.” She was taken to the emergency room at Presbyterian Hospital and sent home after evaluation. The next morning, February 6th, Cody was unable to walk and returned to the hospital, paralyzed below her chest. The mysterious symptoms were finally diagnosed as Transverse Myelitis, a rare but often paralyzing -- and sometimes fatal -- spinal cord inflammation.

It was April 1999 before Cody returned home, paralyzed and in a wheelchair but energized in her quest to build awareness of TM, and promote cooperation among researchers to search for a cure for paralysis.

Cody took what many would consider a lousy hand that life dealt her at a very young age and has turned it into something pure, charitable, and good. Cody speaks with an inner peace, wisdom, dignity and remarkable courage that few ever experience … perhaps later in life we may begin to gain that insight, but rarely in our twenties as Cody exemplifies.

Testimony to the creative spirit of people with disabilities, Cody has become a certified scuba diver, serves as an advocate for stem cell research, has lobbied Congress, introduced rock and roll stars, paired up with the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation to sponsor Cody’s Great Scuba Adventure, produced an award winning documentary “Cody’s First Step”, and even launched a unique BioPolitics Degree at Redlands College. Her accomplishments and activities have won national acclaim, including the Declaration of February 5th as Cody Unser Day by the Legislature of the State of New Mexico. Track Chic is privileged to talk with Cody as we gear up for Indy Speedweeks Fundraisers at Peppers Broad Ripple Sports Bar and Nightclub, the 29th Annual CARA Fashion Show with VIP Guests including Sarah Fisher and Tony Kanaan, and the IU Natatorium CUFSF Discover Scuba Event and Adaptive Dive HAS Instructor and Dive Buddy Training. Tell us about the day that you first discovered your symptoms. It was a pretty scary moment. I was a healthy 12 year-old and very active. I was actually playing basketball and was having a hard time catching my breath and had an incredible migraine. My left leg went numb, my right leg felt tingly and I just collapsed. They called 911 and I was rushed to the hospital. My hope was that once I got to the hospital, they would be able to help me. But my legs were just dangling and no one had any idea why. They thought I was making it up. My parents were going through a divorce at the time, so they thought perhaps I was just trying to get extra attention. They ran some tests and sent me home.

It really sank in the next day when my Primary Care Physician came to my house, and they tested me in the bathtub. It was so weird. I could not feel the water, the texture, or the temperature and I was terrified. The doctors got serious and finally diagnosed Transverse Myelitis.

Doctors need to know, recognize the symptoms, and get other doctors talking. This is the 21st century. We should not be sending people home with this disease. There are 1,000 cases reported in the USA each year. People come into the hospital with symptoms that can be temporary brought on by viruses, vaccination or stress. Your own immune system attacks your spinal cord, but if treated correctly it does not result in life-long paralysis.

My new existence was trying to figure out how to deal with life; I had great rehabilitation therapy at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. I remember questioning “Why me?”, but I always felt fortunate that my dad’s successful motorsports career afforded me access to care and treatments that others could not benefit from.

I also felt guilty and began giving away my toys and dedicated myself to helping others. That was the birth of the Cody Unser First Step Foundation, to help educate others about TM and enable them to identify and treat the symptoms as soon as possible. Diagnosis is critical; if steroids had been administered in the Emergency Room, there is a chance I would not be paralyzed today. Why scuba diving? My family always went scuba diving together, and my younger sister Shannon and I could only snorkel because we weren’t old enough to dive. So I was eager to turn 12 to go scuba diving, but the paralysis changed that. My older brother, Al III, pushed me to get my certification. He did not want to see me get in a funk. He was a great motivator.

The Unser family are risk-takers and lead a fast paced life, so he did everything he could to make sure I did not fall back and wanted to be sure I lived life to the fullest. He even taught me to do wheelies in my wheel chair, and jazzed it up with custom wheelie bars. Al really taught me that this paralyzed body does not define me; I define myself. In the beginning I had moments, I got depressed. But now my attitude is more about “What can I do next?” Tell me about the Bio Politics Degree you created at Redlands College. I was involved with the Christopher Reeve Foundation and began lobbying for stem cell research. I was frustrated that politicians charged with making laws do not understand the science behind it. Their rhetoric was always dramatic but they had no scientific facts to support their position. It is critical for me, and so many others, for science to take precedence over sound bites. Redlands College allowed me to create a Bio-Politics degree as a bridge to connect Biological Sciences and Political Science to form a better understanding of the realities of today’s science and shape laws based on facts. And how did the Cody Unser First Step Documentary come about? A producer approached me at a symposium I was attending and we were discussing a film he wanted to do about stem cell research. He knew that I was a strong advocate for Quality of Life Programs and Secondary Conditions. You know people with paralysis, aren’t just sitting down. They deal with a whole host of issues. Secondary conditions rule your life. We felt it was a great opportunity to share my story with others through a video diary. I am a “raw” kind of girl and I wanted to deal with the “raw realities”. The film chronicled everyday challenges from taking a shower to enjoying time with my boyfriend. It really puts things in perspective regarding family and friends, and the real meaning of family and friends in the world of paralysis. The film has been well received and we have won several awards, but more importantly we are educating others on Quality of Life issues. You were recently honored by the Paralyzed Veterans of America in recognition of your work helping veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. You are now an honorary member of the PVA, that’s pretty special. I’ve never fought in a war, so I don’t know what that’s like. But I do know what it’s like to question the rest of your life. To be able to start Operation Deep Down and be able to help returning veterans that have been wounded in the war has been great.

I love to inspire. I’ve had great role models in my life. It’s hard to explain, but I find my strength in helping others. Injury does not define you; I define myself. Christopher Reeve always told me that one voice has power; it’s what you do with that voice that makes a difference. Water is freedom; it’s one of those rare moments when gravity doesn’t define you.

We visited with the Secretary of Veteran Affairs and he suggested that we focus on training instructors in adaptive scuba and create a network of qualified HSA/Handicapped Scuba Association certified instructors and work with others all around the world.

It’s amazing to witness a veteran’s initial experience, they are apprehensive at first then they take their first few breaths underwater and you can see the look on their face that says “I can do this!”. Scuba diving is a huge boost to their confidence. They start to thing bigger, to be able to accomplish more. Under the water you are in the sphere, you are out of your chair. You are in that moment when you define what life is to you. HERE’S YOUR CHANCE TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE! Join Track Chic’s sisterhood of female motorsport fans as we celebrate America’s Great Race the INDY 500 with Cody Unser, the Cody Unser First Step Foundation, and CARA Charities.

Speedweek and Armed Forces Weekend Activities include: May 19th -22nd Adaptive Scuba – INDY HSA Instructor & Dive Buddy Training Courses Learn how you can get involved … Click here for complete details!

May 24th - 10am-2pm CUFSF, Riley Children’s Hospital, Operation Deep Down Dive, and the Paralyzed Veterans of America “Discover Scuba” Event at the IU Natatorium on the campus of IUPUI. Check it out!

May 24th 8pm Peppers Broad Ripple Nightclub presents Indy’s best fundraising bash for CUFSF featuring Henry Lee Summer and the Alligator Brothers! Invited guests include Sarah Fisher, Tony Kanaan, and so many others. You don’t want to miss this! Club owner George Stancombe, former NHRA Champion and owner of Peppers PEPPERS Offshore Racing Team has the hottest place in Indy! Party people of all stripes spice up their life with heavy doses of Peppers, especially during INDY WEEK!!! Party starts at 8 p.m., doors open at 7 p.m. $50.00 tax deductible donation at the door. Address: Peppers Broad Ripple, 6283 N. College Ave., Indianapolis, IN www.pepperslive.com

May 27th The Championship Auto Racing Auxiliary hosts its 29th Annual Fashion Show and Luncheon. Honorary Driver Co-Chairs are Sarah Fisher and Tony Kanaan. Join us for CARA Goes Global -Giving Children A World of Hope Westin Indianapolis, 50 S. Capitol Avenue, Indianapolis, IN 46204 11:00 a.m. Fashion Market & Social Hour 12:00 p.m. Luncheon 1:00 p.m. Fashion Show Hurry, tickets are going fast! www.carafashionshow.com

The party continues with the INDY Festival Parade Saturday 29th at noon and the INDY 500 on Sunday! For complete details see http://www.trackchic.com/events/ HERE’S A VERY COOL WAY TO HELP! Use special discount code CODY2010 to SAVE 10% on your Track Chic membership … and Track Chic will DONATE A MATCHING 10% to the Cody Unser First Step Foundation on your behalf!

As a member of the Cody Unser First Step Crew Team, you’ll enjoy all the benefits of membership, including VIP access to future Track Chic events and Track Chic’s exclusive HOT PASS ACCESS membership discounts to over 100,000 of your favorite merchants. For about $4 month, you’ll save zillions with interactive HOT PASS ACCESS discount everyday of the year to all your favorite local merchants, including Best Buy, New York & Company, Pizza Hut, Target, Barnes & Noble, PetSmart, McDonalds and Enterprise Rental Car. Track Chic’s HOT PASS ACCESS discounts also helps you save money when traveling to your favorite racetrack or planning family vacations anywhere in North America. Think of all the money you’ll save!

You’ll also save 10% on all online purchases in Track Chic’s Boutique – AND – Track Chic will continue to donate 10% of all your future online boutique purchases to the Cody Unser First Step Foundation.

This is the meaning of Sisterhood … this is Track Chic! Join Track Chic’s social phenomenon today! www.TRACKCHIC.com

Enter CODY2010 at checkout to save 10% on your membership and donate 10% to Cody Unser First Step Foundation! More information: http://www.trackchic.com/crew/speed.asp

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