Alumna advocates for spinal-cord injury patients

The story of Theresa Chase’s (MA ’90) life seems to be told in two chapters: “before the accident” and “after the accident.” And yet, the thread of who she was to become was present long before that moment.

That moment occurred on April 2, 1988, when Chase — 32 at the time — was enjoying a bike ride near her home in Grand Junction, Colo. A drunk driver struck Chase, crushed her bike and caused a spinal-cord injury that sent her to Craig Hospital in Denver for two and a half months of rehabilitation.

Chase’s injury caused incomplete paralysis of both legs. Yet, after tremendous rehabilitative efforts, Chase regained some function in her legs and today can walk short distances with crutches, though she chooses to use her wheelchair, saving her shoulder strength for more important efforts like sea kayaking, water skiing, hand cycling and swimming.

Chase says she looks back on the accident and her time in Craig Hospital as a “spiritual wake-up call.”

“I was a PE teacher, living alone,” she says. “The accident and being in that hospital bed was very focusing. It gave me a chance to listen inside myself, to discover my own direction.”

Since that time, Chase has earned a master’s degree in exercise science from DU, a doctorate of nursing from the University of Colorado and a master’s degree in spiritual psychology — with an emphasis in consciousness, health and healing — from the University of Santa Monica. She has also been working at Craig Hospital since 1996, earning a national reputation as a pioneer in spinal-cord injury rehabilitation education and care.

Chase also is this year’s recipient of the University of Denver’s 2008 Founders Day Community Service Award.

As Coordinator of Craig’s patient and family education program, Chase develops educational materials for patients with spinal cord injuries, trains other educators and teaches classes. She also established and leads the hospital’s complementary and alternative medicine program, which offers massage therapy, acupuncture, aromatherapy and other alternative healing opportunities for Craig patients.

“My goal is to infuse the concept of ‘health promotion’ into everything we do,” says Chase. “The typical medical model is to treat sickness. I feel very strongly that we need to teach [spinal-cord injury] patients to listen to their bodies, stay fit and to speak up for themselves.”

Denny O’Malley, president of Craig Hospital, says Chase has “built a national reputation for expertise and innovative approaches” to spinal-cord injury care.

“Terry has made it her life’s work to foster health and wellness for people with disabilities and works tirelessly towards her vision that every individual has knowledge and access to resources to achieve their potential in health,” O’Malley says.

In her office, Chase keeps a picture of herself in her hospital bed during rehabilitation.

“When I feel lost, I look at my face in that photo,” she says. “I go back to that place and it reminds me of my mission, which is to provide excellence in education and delivery and to advocate health promotion for [spinal-cord injury] patients.

“I do think people feel better because of what I do.”

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