‘Free Lee’: ‘Forever is not an option,’ swears paralysis victim

Renee Oehlerking

It was just another day for Lee Harris, sophomore in mechanical engineering, on Sept. 12, 2005. He finished up a meal with his family that evening and hopped on his friend’s motorcycle, not knowing that his whole life was about to change.

“I had a terrible feeling when I saw the other bike outside,” said Renee Harris, Lee’s mother. After dinner it hit her again. She went to go find Lee to tell him not to leave, but he was already gone.

The phone rang.

A jolt of adrenaline and worry hit Renee.

She answered.

It was her youngest son.

Lee had been in an accident.

Lee wants to be just like any other college student. He goes to school full time, has a job, lives on his own, has an internship and enjoys hanging out with friends. But he has a different mission than many of his fellow students. His mission is to walk again.

Lee patiently waited in the intensive care unit for two weeks at Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines for doctors to confirm what he knew from the beginning.

“I couldn’t feel my legs,” Lee said. “I tried to get to the road, but I couldn’t move my legs.”

Lee was paralyzed from the chest down and he would be for the rest of his life.

Lee took the news matter-of-factly, Renee said.

“He’s one that has always had everything planned, and this was not going to stop him,” Renee said.

And planning he was doing – planning that “forever is not an option.”

“Forever was not an option, because if the doctor tells you you will never walk again at 19 years old, that is not something you want to hear,” Lee said. “I’m not going to sit back and let it happen. I’m going to try whatever is out there.”

Lee coined the term “forever is not an option” and uses it along with “Free Lee” in his self-initiated campaign to raise money to fund the surgery that could help set him “free.”

The surgery that Lee and his parents found as an option is experimental. The procedure consists of taking adult olfactory stem cells from Lee’s nose and transferring them into his spinal cord where the main injury occurred. The goal is that the stem cells will grow within his spinal cord and reconnect those nerves.

Because the surgery is experimental, it is not offered in the United States and not covered by insurance. Lee has estimated the cost of the first two years to be $150,000 – $50,000 for the surgery and $100,000 for the rehabilitation.

Lee will be having the surgery Feb. 9, 2007, in Portugal.

If forever was not going to be an option, money would have to be.

“Fundraising was the only option,” Lee said. “We didn’t have the money and we knew we wanted to do it.”

Within the first month, Lee has raised more than $55,000 with help from family members and community outreach events all over Iowa.

“The biggest thing about fundraising is not being shy and not being afraid to ask people for help, which is something that both Lee and I don’t take lightly,” Renee said.

Although Lee now has enough money to get the surgery, he said he is continuing to fundraise because he does not want to have to do any while in rehabilitation.

Lee already has the next two months worth of fundraising events planned out with the help of friends and family.

“It makes me feel good [to have the support],” Lee said. “If I was in their same position, I would do the same thing.”

After two weeks in Portugal for the surgery, Lee will go to Detroit for rehabilitation for two to three months. Lee’s mother and aunt will accompany him to Portugal, but he will be on his own in Detroit, something he says he is fine with – as long as he can drive his big, red pickup truck afterwards.

As of now, Lee plans to be back at Iowa State for the fall semester in 2007.

“It usually takes five years in the program, anyway,” said Paul Castleberry, Lee’s academic adviser. “I don’t see Lee taking more than that of a typical mechanical engineering student.”

Castleberry said Lee has also proven himself to be independent and dedicated to his school work. Recently, Castleberry and Lee tried to find an online course he could complete while going through rehabilitation.

“I have great faith in his ability to assess what he can do,” Castleberry said.

Lee continues to emphasize that he still tries to be as independent as possible. Renee said she feels that he still is the same person he was from before the accident but with a little more maturity and a new perspective on life.

“When I want to do something, I’m just going to do it now and I’m not going to wait,” Lee said. “Some people shut down [when paralyzed], but I pride myself for getting back into everything as fast as I did.”

Lee said it will be upsetting if he does not get any results from the surgery, but if it does not work then he is ready and willing to try something else. Renee, however, is convinced that he will be walking across the stage during graduation.

Good friends of Lee’s are not surprised that he was back to normal as fast as he was.

“If it happened to anybody, I knew he would be the one to pull through it,” said Greg Vetterick, junior in materials engineering, roommate and long-time friend.

Lee also hopes that through this whole process he is helping promote awareness of stem cell research and spinal cord injuries. He said he is determined to do everything he did before again, and joked about the possibilities if his surgery is successful.

“I would like to get back on my bike again – though many people would not like to see that,” he said.