At 22 years old, Jessy Nelson has found himself with the toughest battle of his life ahead of him. The Troy Lee Designs/GoPro/Red Bull/KTM racer sustained paralyzing injuries at the August 13 Unadilla round of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Nationals when he clipped a track marker and crashed. Nelson’s bike hit him in the back, breaking his T4 and T5 vertebrae. His spinal cord was stretched in the incident – not severed or cut – and he underwent surgery to stabilize the broken vertebrae in a hospital in Cooperstown, NY. Shortly after surgery, Nelson was transferred to a rehabilitation center in New York, where therapists have worked with him to help get him as mobile as possible. Nelson hopes to return home to California soon, so that he can pursue a more aggressive therapy developed for spinal cord injury patients at Project Walk in Carlsbad, California. Nelson has no movement below mid-chest for now, but he was excited to tell us that he has regained some feeling in his toes recently. We’re all big Jessy Nelson fans at TransWorld Motocross, and we are pulling for our buddy to beat the odds and regain his ability to walk, but in the meantime, please support his recovery efforts by donating to his Road to Recovery Fund by CLICKING HERE
Jessy, we’re about seven weeks out from the accident and we are really happy to speak with you. Do you remember everything that happened at Unadilla?
Yeah, I remember the day a little bit and I remember having a lot of things on my mind with the track that I think should have been addressed. I hit one of those yellow track markers that are all over the course and have been all year long. For whatever reason, though, they were staked into the ground at Unadilla so if you were to hit one it wasn’t going to bounce out of the way. I actually hit one in practice and it just about smashed my hand. During the race, I somehow made a mistake and tagged one of those markers going into a corner. I’ve seen the crash, and I can’t believe that I’m now unable to move my legs because of it. It’s a scary thought to me because I’ve obviously thought about having kids and a family one day. I want to be able to play with my kids and run around with them. I want to teach my kid how to ride a bicycle. Being in this chair isn’t me, and I’m willing to do anything I can to get out of it.
So you were able to see the crash on video?
Yeah, it wasn’t the greatest quality, but you can see what happened. It was just a shitty day that I will never forget! I just hope something good comes of this. I don’t understand how there is nothing to be done in a situation like this. There’s no fix and there’s no cure for what I have. Instead, you’re handed a wheelchair and told to use your core.
By definition, rehab should aid in getting a person back to or near the point before their injury. Instead, a hospital’s version of rehab for a spinal cord injury is to help the individual learn how to get in and out of their chair along with how to go to the bathroom…
Yeah, you’re pretty much right. I learned all of that and you’d think getting in and out of bed is easy, but when you have no use of the muscles in the lower portion of your body all you have left are your arms, it’s tough. That kind of stuff is a lot harder than most people think; it’s a struggle. The outpatient therapy is extremely expensive, and if I want to get better the funds need to be there. I’m going to look into the stem cell thing, and I’m going to take every road possible. I’m not taking no for an answer. I’ll sell my house and use that money for my rehabilitation if I have to. I’m not giving up!
How has it been since you started rehab? Has there been any progress?
Well, I’m able to get in and out of bed now, and I don’t have a whole lot of pain anymore, which is good. Everything is starting to feel better, but everything is still really tough. As far as feeling or anything like that in my legs nothing has changed really. I get a little tingling feeling here and there, but it always goes away.
In our conversations you’ve said that you have good days and bad days, and I absolutely think you should focus on the positive because this could have turned out much worse. What do you do to keep your spirits up?
Frankly, the only person that keeps my spirits up is my girlfriend. She has helped me with everything in that aspect with trying to keep me in a positive frame of mind. I really don’t understand how she deals with this. It’s tough, though, to stay positive. Everyone says to stay out of my head with those, “Why me?” thoughts, but I’m sitting here in a hospital bed in New York seven weeks after the accident thinking those exact thoughts. I don’t want to be here, this isn’t my life. I mean I’m 22 years old. I just bought a house and I wanted to start a family one day, but now I have all of this is weighing on me.
There’s much more to it than meets the eye with a major injury like this when it comes to bills and insurance. Insurance obviously helps with a portion of the bills, but a lot of it falls on the individual. Even things like the expenses of having your family there for you add up quickly. Have your parents been there the whole time or have they been flying back and forth?
Yeah, my parents are here. Insurance has been spotty and they’ve been all over the place when it comes to covering certain things. They only want to cover so much of the therapy. My parents were out here for quite a while, but they went back home to try to make my home wheelchair accessible. I have to put a lift in my house so that I will be able to go up and down the stairs, along with wheelchair ramps all over the place. Just the essentials right now. Someone was nice enough to let my parents stay in his house for a week, but other than that my parents have been living out of a hotel. It’s extremely expensive, but they didn’t have anywhere else to go. My dad would stay with me quite a bit in my room and my mom did the same thing, but they both went back to my house in California to get everything ready. For the last three weeks my girlfriend has stayed in my room in the hospital with me. She’s been sleeping on a little pullout couch and she’s been helping me eat right. Anyway she can, she’s always helping.
How has it been for you to see the support from all of your fans and friends in the industry? The Road 2 Recovery foundation has been doing a great job…
Yeah, it’s unbelievable to see all of the help and encouragement I’ve received from everyone. The outreach and love is incredible, but it’s nearly impossible for me to thank them all. If I could I would call everyone personally to thank them, but I’ve got so much going on right now. But there’s so much more to it than not being able to use your legs; it’s a different kind of evil. In the beginning, everything was awful because nothing works. Everything from my chest down I’m unable to move and that kind of thing can have an adverse affect on a person’s mind. I truly find it hard to believe that there is no cure for this. Ultimately the government makes more money off of people that are injured or sick than the people that are healthy; it’s bullshit. The stem cell thing is all over the place, as well. I mean, is there really no hope? And to the doctor that did my surgery… I don’t think he was very good. In fact, I hope he reads this because I truly believe he’s not a good doctor, whatsoever. He was one of the most negative people I’ve ever had to deal with when it came to my injury. He gave me no hope and nothing to strive for. Instead, I was handed a wheelchair. If I’m ever able to walk again, I’m buying a plane ticket to Cooperstown, New York, just so that I can tell him to F off! That guy really put me in the dumps for a while. I’m just trying to do the best that I can because I’m tired of being in New York. I want to be home. I’m tired of not walking, I’m tired of sitting in a chair and I’m tired of the process involved in simple, everyday activities now. Everything about this situation is awful; it’s hard to explain just what it’s like.
What’s next when you come home? As you mentioned, your house in Lake Elsinore is being converted to accommodate you, but are you going to pursue a more aggressive therapy?
Yeah, I’m going to do anything I can. I’m no stranger to hard work, and this is going to be a lot harder than training for an outdoor race. It already has been! Looking back, I’m going to miss that stuff a lot. Training was easy compared to what I’m going to have to face. Training in riding every day, though, that was something that I really loved and I’m going to miss it a lot. Even if I’m able to walk again, it’ll still be a scary thought to ride a motorcycle again, but I’m obviously saying that now because I’m a little bitter about the situation. I wish more than anything I could wake up tomorrow and stand up out of bed. I would use all of the donated money to help other people. I’m tired of being like this already, but when I get home I’m going to head to Project Walk to see how that goes along with figuring out my house. Getting a house prepared for someone in a wheelchair is expensive, and I think I’m around the $12,000 mark. I’ll have to do the same thing when it comes to my body; catheters, wheelchairs, etc.
I spoke with your team manager Tyler Keefe, and he said that when you were ready there was always going to be a job waiting for you at the team. During your recovery, is being at the races something that you want to do or would it be too painful?
As of right now, it wouldn’t really bother me. I’m not bitter towards racing at all because it was my entire life. I would love to go to an Anaheim Supercross or something, but I wouldn’t want to be overwhelmed with people. I would like to go there just to watch my friends race. When I go to the races I want to walk around. I want to be able to walk from pit to pit to say hi to my friends without having to roll up and down ramps the whole time. I’m young, so it’s even harder to wrap my head around the situation. People have said to me, “You need to accept this as a challenge!” It’s not like that, though. It’s a lot more obscure than that.
Other than the obvious injury from the accident, is everything else with your body okay?
As far as I know everything is fine. I don’t really have anything else going on save for a couple of broken ribs. I couldn’t really feel it before, but I could sense that something was wrong in my chest. Hopefully soon I will see something positive. Show me something! I just want to get home to see my friends and family and I want to sleep in my own bed. I’ve spent about six or seven weeks in this hospital bed, and I’m over it.
Do you have anything in closing that you would like to say to your friends, fans and team?
I want to thank everyone at Road 2 Recovery, Bob Walker, Jimmy Button and his mom along with everyone that has shown support. Troy Lee and everybody on the team has been extremely supportive along with KTM. There’s been a lot of people with spinal cord injuries that have reached out to me and they’ve shined some light on the situation with information. Before this I had no knowledge of this type of thing. I wish more than anything I was one of those stories you hear where the individual is miraculously healed from a severe spinal cord injury overnight, but that’s not how it is. It hasn’t been very long since the accident, but it’s not looking good. I’m just going to continue doing the best that I can.