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The story of Laura Burdick, who sustained a spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury, has been an inspiration to many — and it connected her to Lingxiao Deng, PhD, assistant professor of neurological surgery and a primary member of Stark Neurosciences Research Institute at Indiana University School of Medicine.

A story of resilience: Spinal cord injury survivor now spinal research ambassador thanks to IU School of Medicine researcher

Laura Burdick and Lingxiao Deng, PhD

Laura Burdick and Lingxiao Deng, PhD

Four years ago, Laura Burdick’s life changed in a matter of seconds.

In May 2020, Burdick sustained a traumatic brain injury and a spinal cord injury when a drunken driver drove erratically off Interstate 94 in Chicago, sailed through the air and landed on top of Burdick’s car on an access road next to the highway. The driver died. Burdick survived.

Burdick awoke two months later in the ICU with no memory of the crash or her stay at the Chicago hospital. Constrained to a bed, she had zero motor function below her shoulders, and doctors didn’t know the extent of her injuries. And under strict COVID-19 visitor restrictions, Burdick’s family couldn’t see her in the hospital until at least two weeks after the accident.

Despite these uncertainties and isolation, Burdick persevered.

Her brain has fully healed, and Burdick has spent the last few years rehabilitating at facilities in Chicago, Omaha and Indianapolis. Burdick now has more mobility with her hands and arms, which allows her to eat on her own, operate her wheelchair and do daily tasks.

Burdick’s story has been an inspiration to many — and it connected her to Lingxiao Deng, PhD, assistant professor of neurological surgery and a primary member of Stark Neurosciences Research Institute at Indiana University School of Medicine. Deng investigates neural plasticity following spinal cord injury with the hopes of discovering promising new therapies.

“Laura’s message of strength, courage and resilience has been an inspiration to us all,” Deng said.

Spinal Research LogoDeng connected Burdick with Spinal Research, the leading charity in the United Kingdom funding spinal cord research and one of the largest organizations of its kind internationally. Burdick was recently chosen as one of their ambassadors. She meets monthly on a call with researchers and fellow ambassadors across the world to discuss their work and advocacy.

“It would be wonderful if we could cure paralysis, but there are a lot of other issues that need research and help,” Burdick said. “Even if you could solve some of those issues, that can make a tremendous difference in someone’s life whether or not they ever walk again.”

Deng, who has been researching spinal cord injuries at IU School of Medicine for nearly a decade, said it’s mutually beneficial for researchers to meet with people living with the injury or disease they study.

“We need to listen to what the spinal cord injury population needs,” Deng said. “They may help us translate some of our strategies in the lab to their daily lives.”

Burdick, an Indianapolis resident and Terre Haute native, attended Notre Dame for her undergraduate education and later earned a master’s degree in public health from Saint Louis University. With a budding career in the wellness field, Burdick became general manager of The Hot Room, an Indianapolis-based hot yoga and Pilates studio. It was through her role there that led her to Chicago in May 2020 to visit The Hot Room’s Chicago location, where she was helping deliver virtual health and fitness during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was also through The Hot Room that she met Kristen Cohen, a research assistant in the Deng lab. Burdick has known Cohen for more than 10 years, as both a yoga student and yoga client.

Shortly after Burdick returned to Indianapolis following several months of rehabilitation out of state, her friendships with Cohen and a group of other women from the studio deepened. Cohen introduced Burdick to Deng and shared about their research in the lab.

“Dr. Deng’s research is at top of mind for people living with a spinal cord injury,” Burdick said.

Deng labDeng’s work explores three translational themes: the plasticity of neural circuitry mediating the recovery of bladder function after spinal cord injury; a pharmacological approach to protect the spinal cord from contusive injury; and cell transplantation combined with locomotor exercise to improve the motor and bladder functional recovery after spinal cord injury.

Bladder function recovery is a top priority among people with spinal cord injuries, and Deng and his team are investigating rehabilitation approaches to improving this function through locomotor exercise. The lab is also investigating the use of a Food and Drug Administration-approved drug that has been effective in reducing function deficit of spinal cord injury in animal models.

“Researchers, the public and the spinal cord injury population should have a similar goal, and we should work together,” Deng said.

After being discharged from the ICU, Burdick first sought care during a short stay at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago for acute care needs, which included relearning how to swallow food and water with the help of speech-language pathologists. Burdick next traveled to the QLI rehabilitation center in Omaha, Nebraska, for nine months to work with physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, vocational specialists and other experts to help her improve and progress in her physical health and wellness.

Laura Burdick rehabs at NeuroHope in IndianapolisBurdick continues to rehabilitate in Indianapolis at NeuroHope, and she even offers nutrition coaching at the wellness center. While at QLI, Burdick led in-person and virtual yoga classes. She’s also back working at The Hot Room, teaching yoga classes and conducting teaching training classes for new yoga teachers and coaching wellness and nutrition classes.

Through the ambassadorship program with Spinal Research, Burdick is tasked with spreading the word about spinal cord injury research to a broader audience and helping fundraise. Prior to her injury, Burdick said she didn’t know much about spinal cord injuries. A few months after, Burdick started researching how scientists and clinicians are trying to treat and cure paralysis.

“It did heighten my awareness that there are people out there who are dedicating their research to try and help us improve,” Burdick said. “In doing a clinical trial, I understand that things may never improve for me in my life. But if I can help the next set of people with spinal cord injuries, then that’s worth it for me.”

Always with a smile on her face, Burdick said she attributes her positive attitude to the strength of her friends and family who have stood by her side through the highs and lows.

“I have hope,” Burdick said. “I think a lot of people don’t have that same hope. I’m a faithful person, but I just know that good things can happen, and we could be on the precipice of something big all the time. I’m going to continue to work hard at improving my health, so who knows what can happen. I’m not resigned to the fact that it’s all over, and that makes me still want to get up in the morning and say, ‘What can happen today?’”

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
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Ben Middelkamp

Ben Middelkamp is a communications manager for the Department of Neurology, Department of Neurological Surgery and Stark Neurosciences Research Institute at Indiana University School of Medicine. Before joining the Office of Strategic Communications in December 2019, Ben spent nearly six years as a newspaper reporter in two Indiana cities. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Convergent Journalism from Indiana Wesleyan University in 2014. Ben enjoys translating his background in journalism to the communications and marketing needs of the school and its physicians and researchers.