A Young Adventurer Seeks Restoration, Rehabilitation and Hope

Jim Harris with his parents, Mary Pat Schoeny Harris and Jeff Harris, at the UC Medical Center several days after Jim underwent complex spinal surgery.

There was always an element of risk. Jim Harris traveled in the adventure world as an accomplished writer and photographer, capturing an alternate universe of powder, mountains and electric blue skies for publications like National Geographic and Men’s Journal. It was a breathtaking and beautiful world, with stops in places like Mongolia, Bolivia and Antarctica. It was also a world of ice, isolation and bursts of weather.

Jim, a native Cincinnatian who went west to college and settled in Utah, was living his adventure-life to the fullest when calamity struck on November 24. Jim and his colleagues were preparing for a month-long, 350-mile expedition across Patagonia in southern Chile, hoping to become the first Americans to successfully cross the polar ice cap. They had just spent a frustrating day in the town of Punta Arenas negotiating permits and other bureaucratic requirements for their trip, whose route traversed a long stretch of the border between Argentina and Chile.

That evening, they decided to unwind by going out into a field and flying the wind kites that would soon be pulling them across the ice cap like sailors across the sea. It was spring in Chile, blustery. “The wind was howling all day, whipping the tree tops around,” Jim remembers.

Jim was strapped into the kite harness, the wind lifting him up onto his toes, when a sudden gust lifted him three to four feet off the ground. “I was not able to control my acceleration,” he recalls. “Even so, I wasn’t totally terrified. It’s not unheard of to be lifted off the ground.”

Jim was moving at a speed of 20 to 30 miles per hour when he crashed against the earth.

“That’s the last thing I remember,” he says. I do remember being loaded into a Chilean ambulance out in the field. An hour to 2 hours had passed. The accident happened at 7 p.m., and I think it was about 9 when I got to the ambulance. I remember knowing at that point that I couldn’t move my legs. I remember being terrified but also really confused and just pretty much out of it.”

At the regional hospital in Punta Arenas, doctors confirmed that Jim had suffered spinal and cranial injuries. He was paralyzed from the waist down.

Over the next several days, Jim’s parents, Mary Pat Schoeny Harris and Jeff Harris of Cincinnati, became full-time advocates for their son. They explored Jim’s options, which included having him undergo surgery in Punta Arenas, having him transferred to a larger hospital in Santiago, or bringing him home. “It was a long plane ride,” reflects Jim’s father, Jeff. “The downside risk was the possibility of turbulence, which could have caused further injury to Jim’s spine.”

Ultimately, the Harrises secured a medical evacuation that transported Jim 6,400 miles to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, and the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute, for surgery. The only patient on the flight, Jim was accompanied by a medical team as well as the flight team. His transportation costs, which were covered by rescue insurance, would exceed $200,000.

Richard Curry, MD, a neuro-oncologist with the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute and a friend of the Harris family, helped smooth Jim’s arrival at the emergency department, where Jordan Bonomo, MD, a neurocritical care specialist, oversaw his initial care. On November 28, Jim’s family met with Charles Kuntz, IV, MD, a neurosurgeon and Director of Spinal Trauma at the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute. On December 1, his 33rd birthday, Jim underwent complex spine surgery led by Dr. Kuntz, and a week later he was moved to the Daniel Drake Center for Post-Acute Care.

Jim, a graduate of St. Xavier High School, is receiving assistance from the Kairos Foundation, which helps families of St. Xavier alumni and faculty who face financial hardship because of prolonged disability.

Since the accident, Jim has found himself in an unanticipated spotlight, as e-mails and letters expressing support and empathy have flooded in. “I have heard from strangers, people who have had injuries that were similar, or not similar, to mine,” Jim says. “I’ve heard from people who have experienced extensive trauma or life-altering processes. The number of people who have reached out to empathize has been astonishing.”

His doctors have been supportive, he says, but have offered no guarantees that he will ever walk again.

“I don’t know what to anticipate or how long my rehab will last or whether I will be a paraplegic forever or maybe I’ll regain the use of my legs. To hear success stories about people who have come back from injuries that are similar to mine — or even worse — is really inspiring and gives me hope that maybe I can recover. But nobody’s guaranteeing that by any stretch.”

Smiling and speaking in an upbeat tone, without tears or anger, Jim radiates an attitude of stoic acceptance. It keeps the heartbreak in his room at bay, mostly, but does not eliminate it.

“Maybe things are busy enough and I’m surrounded by people enough that I haven’t had the opportunity to feel that darker side,” Jim reflects. “But even in Chile, before I knew the full extent of my injuries, I had come to terms with it in some way. I guess it never felt abstract. It was like, I can’t believe this happened, but it did. And what do I do next? I haven’t had a lot of anger or denial.

“I feel like my life plans, work plans, have gone out the window. Adventure has been the focus of my life since I graduated from college. But I feel I do have other interests and areas of expertise if it turns out that I don’t walk again. I still have work to do. This will probably push me in ways I would not have pushed myself if I had the ability to be mobile and travel.”

Indeed, Jim is pushing himself already. Last weekend, in a welcomed sign of progress, Jim posted a short Facebook video that showed him lifting his left leg several inches above his bed at Drake Center.

— Cindy Starr

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From the Cincinnati Enquirer — A Broken Body Heals: Adventurous Spirits Never Break >

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