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Meet Andrew Skinner of Triumph Foundation in Santa Clarita

Today we’d like to introduce you to Andrew Skinner.

Andrew, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I suffered a spinal cord injury on November 26, 2004 and I am a recovering quadriplegic. I’m glad to report that I am getting better every day. I got hurt six months after graduating from college. I had landed a great job, I had found the love of my life, Kirsten and I was on top of the world. My family and I were celebrating Thanksgiving at our family cabin in Lake Arrowhead and the ground was covered in a blanket of fresh powder snow. We spent the weekend playing in the snow, sledding, building snowmen and snowboarding.

On the day after Thanksgiving, I fell while I was snowboarding in front of the cabin. Although it did not appear to be a hard fall, the landing apparently was. When I fell, I broke my 4th, 5th and 6th cervical vertebra in my neck and suffered a spinal cord injury. Instantly, I was completely paralyzed from the neck down. I was rushed to the hospital where they reconstructed my neck and I began a new chapter in my life. My whole life’s focus was turned to recovery. Slowly, through prayer, physical therapy, exercise and determination I started to regain use of my body.

I spent the next three months in the hospital, regaining as much strength as I could. My family, friends and loved ones stayed by my side keeping me motivated and inspired. My focus was on restoring the use of my body. I wore a neck brace for only 13 days. Shortly after it was removed, I started physical and occupational therapy.
By the time, I was discharged from the hospital I started to get a return of movement in my biceps, shoulders and wrist extensors. I also had a little sensation in my lower body and I could even wiggle one of my toes. I started to learn how to propel myself in a manual wheelchair but spent the majority of the time in a power chair. Using adaptive equipment, I learned how to feed myself, brush my own teeth and to write with a pen. I relentlessly trained towards my goal of maximizing my return of function.

Going home is when rehab really started. When I went home, I was left with a decision to make: am I going to keep working to get better or am I going to accept that this is as good as it gets and give up. To me, the answer was clear and I began exercising and training from home to be the best me I could be and maximize my recovery. I tried to do as much as I possibly could do for myself. It is often hard for others to watch me struggle to do simple tasks, but that is the only way to learn.

While I was in the hospital at an SCI Support Group, I had met a man named Kenny Craig, who told me about a trainer he was working with named Taylor-Kevin Isaacs, who is an exercise physiologist and is skilled at working with people with neuromuscular disorders. While I was at home waiting for outpatient physical therapy to get approved by my insurance, I gave Taylor a call and that turned out to be a life-changing event.

I started working with Taylor and he helped me take charge of my own care, he educated me about how the human body moves and functions, he inspired me to push myself harder than I thought possible, and at times he believed in me even when I did not. He helped me realize the importance of good posture, how essential it is to have a balanced diet and the necessity of exercise in my daily life. Taylor designed specific exercise programs and lifestyle enhancement regiments for me with the focus on getting me back on my feet. Kirsten took me to my appointments and helped me bring home what we were learning in the gym.

I eventually got approved for outpatient physical therapy at Northridge hospital and I started to work with two excellent physical therapists, Gary Quist and Gloria Almazan. On the days I had physical therapy, Taylor and I would coordinate my training programs with my work-out at the hospital, so we worked like a team focused on my rehabilitation.

In the first year after my injury, I transitioned out of a power wheelchair and into a manual wheelchair full time, I stopped needing as much adaptive equipment to do basic daily tasks, my trunk control greatly increased and I no longer needed to be strapped into my wheelchair, I had slight finger flexion in my right hand and I had muscle contractions in many new parts of my body including in my quadriceps and hip extenders. A friend from the gym, named Derrick Langjahr, gave me a standing frame to use and to this day I stand routinely.
In the second year after my injury, my entire body strengthened. I regained strength in my back’s spinal extensors, in my trunk and core, in my quadriceps & in my hip extenders, and started to get muscle contractions in one of my triceps. I learned how to transfer myself, I started to work out on a leg press machine, and I was able to stand with assistance in 4 ½ feet of water. I completed drivers training and earned my driver’s license. My brother and I started a small business in real estate and I also went back to work for my brother’s construction company. I went surfing, I went boating and I had the opportunity to take my first step towards a lifelong goal of mine to become a pilot by flying with a flight instructor.

To top it all, Kirsten and I finally got married! If there is one thing this injury has taught me, it is that you cannot wait until tomorrow.

In my third and fourth year after my injury, I continued to grow in leaps and bounds. On the leg press machine, I reached a personal best of being able to push up 80 lbs., my balance and posture greatly improved, I figured out how to get myself into my wheelchair starting from lying prone in bed, I gained more sensation in my lower body including hot/cold, I stood in 4 ½ feet of water independently and I was awarded a grant from the California Department of Rehabilitation to help me modify a van to be accessible.

In August of 2008, I stood for the first time since my injury on dry land between parallel bars with the help of my physical therapist, Gloria Almazan. My mission is to walk again; and Lord willing, it is not a matter of if I am going to walk again, but when; whether it is through pure determination or medical breakthrough. I have reached even more milestones. I stood in 3 ½ feet of water with a walker independently using AFO leg braces. With a little bit of assistance, I even walked in that depth of water (YouTube Videos). In 4 ½ feet of water, I can take a few steps on my own.

I’ve gone waterskiing, sailing, kayaking, hand cycling and even flew an airplane again. I recently took up the wheelchair sport of Quad Rugby and I love it. I started to play with the Northridge Knights Murderball team and have had the opportunity to travel with them to several tournaments. I’m training now to be the best rugby player I can be. I am still pushing myself to maximize both my recovery and my life.

I am very proud to report that on September 4, 2010, Kirsten and I welcomed a little girl into this world and I became a daddy. Her name is Elizabeth Jayne Skinner. We call her Betty and she is, by far, the most significant accomplishment of my life.

Since my injury, I have trained every day and I have grown tremendously. I have come so far from where I started the day I got hurt; from where I was when I got discharged from the hospital; and even from where I was a month ago, a week ago, or even a day ago. I am getting better every day. I am constantly learning new ways to perform daily tasks that I had struggled with in the past, and I am getting closer to my ultimate goal of being independent.

In August 2008, Kirsten and I started Triumph Foundation. Ever since I got hurt, we always wanted to give back to others who have suffered an injury like mine and are recovering from paralysis. Triumph Foundation’s mission is to inspire people with spinal cord injuries to triumph over their disability and to push themselves to get better every day by moving forward with their lives.

On behalf of Triumph, Kirsten and I work as a mentor to people with Spinal Cord Injury. Triumph shares information, experiences, and ideas among those who are injured to be a positive influence. With a servants heart, Triumph reaches out to the SCI community by giving out care baskets to newly injured people with resources that will help them with their recovery, by getting involved in SCI support groups, by providing advice and informational materials about the many organizations that exist to help people get their lives back on track, by helping people with financial constraints to purchase equipment and by doing home modifications to make them more wheelchair accessible. Our message is universal; the goal is to be better tomorrow than we are today.
This injury has taught me many lessons. One of the first things you learn when you go through a catastrophic event is what is really important to you. You learn to not sweat the small stuff and to count your blessings. I am blessed in so many ways. I believe we are not given more than we can handle in Life. There is Good in everything that happens, although it might not be clear at first.

This injury has also taught me how to deal with challenges and life is full of challenges. Life does not always go as planned and everyone faces obstacles, but what matters is how you deal with it, and what you do about it. You cannot live your life focused on the things that happened in the past, just like you cannot drive a car forward if you are focused on the rearview mirror; you will crash. You have to seize every opportunity in life. You have to set goals and get involved with them because there is no telling what tomorrow will bring. Time moves by fast, and no one can ever repay you for your time. Every decision you make counts, so be deliberate. Small successes quickly turn into major accomplishments. Chunk things down into achievable goals, and keep at it. The most certain way to succeed is to never stop trying. I wish I had the mindset and focus that I have now before my injury.

I have always lived an active lifestyle and just because I am in a wheelchair does not mean I am just sitting around. Many things in my life changed when I got hurt, but that does not mean I stopped living my life, I just have to do things differently. My accident left me as a newborn, and I had to relearn how to do everything. I feel blessed that my most powerful muscle, my mind, is still very much intact and stronger than ever. Everyone has their own scars, and there are things in life that you just cannot change. Sometimes the only thing you can change is your attitude and you have to do what you have to do. Just Keep Moving Forward.

Life is not about how you fall, it is about how you land and if you pick yourself back up again. My injury was my fall, my landing is my recovery and what I do with my life is me picking myself back up again.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Our biggest struggle is raising capital. As a non-profit, we depend on the generosity of the public and sponsors in the community to support the financial needs involved with running Triumph Foundation’s three programs. The demand for our services continues to rise and we are determined to keep up with our growth.

Triumph Foundation – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
Triumph Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization whose mission is to help individuals with Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) to triumph over their disability and to inspire them to keep moving forward with their lives by pushing themselves to get better every day. Triumph Foundation works to minimize the obstacles that one faces after suffering a Spinal Cord Injury.

Triumph Foundation provides resources, hope and security to people living with paralysis – not just initially when the injury occurs, but as a lifelong support network. Additionally, we hold events that are a captivating force within the entire community. We are the go-to organization for people living with mobility impairments in Southern California.

Triumph Foundation provides the following programs:

Newly Injured Support:
Care Basket Outreach
SCI Support Groups

Grants and Equipment:
Keep Moving Forward Grants
Equipment & Supply Exchange

Adaptive Recreation:
Wheelchair Sports
Outdoor Adventures

Our programs assist a person from the beginning of their injury with our Care Basket Outreach; down the road to recovery getting the necessary goods and services to achieve independence through our Keep Moving Forward Grant and Exchange program; and then, assist a person with SCI to reemerge into the community by helping them emotionally through our Support Groups and restore a sense of life and adventure through our Adaptive Recreation activities. We have become a force in the community that is a critical resource for people living with paralysis.

To date, the organization has touched the lives of over 5,000 individuals with disabilities; given $250,000 in assistance to people with inadequate medical insurance and financial hardship; performed ten accessible home remodels; provided wheelchair accessible vehicles to six individuals who did not have the means to purchase one on their own; handed out over 2,000 Care Baskets full of resources to those newly injured; and regularly visited 18 area hospitals and rehabilitation centers throughout the Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino, Riverside, Kern, and San Diego counties.

Triumph primarily focuses on people that have Spinal Cord Injury/Disorder (SCI/D) that causes paralysis. Many of our programs are open to any person dealing with disability. Our outreach supports children, adults, and Veterans; and people of all backgrounds and demographics. The majority of our outreach is in Southern California, but we also provide resources and assistance to people across the United States.

Triumph Foundation is a chapter of United Spinal Association and is the Los Angeles Paralympic Sport Club.

What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
Our first home modification was the proudest moment of my career so far. Triumph Foundation raised money to assist a young man named, Tyler. We were able to raise the funds needed to widen his bathroom door. This allowed him access to the bathroom in his home, gaining the independence and privacy that a young man needs.

It was one a pivotal moment for me. I was able to improve someone’s quality of life through the organization for the first time.

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Image Credit:

Michael Hansel, Tiffany J Photography

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