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Getting Back Up

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Scott Fedor, MBA ’04, charts a new course after a devastating spinal cord injury.

For Scott Fedor, MBA ’04, a common entry in an old planner — “pick up dry cleaning” — is a portal to another life. Though Fedor scribbled that to-do in 2009, he left the pants hanging at a suburban Cleveland cleaners.

“It’s amazing to think what my mindset was when I dropped those pants off,” Fedor says. “I took for granted that after the Fourth of July weekend, I would pick them up and wear them to my next sales meeting.”

It was yet another example of how the career-driven executive had his life planned out. Fedor was a vice president in marketing at a Berkshire Hathaway company, based in Cleveland. He had risen steadily through the corporate ranks, and enjoyed taking on challenges ranging from riding bulls to tackling Michigan’s Evening MBA Program as part of his desire to get the most out of his life and career.

But sometimes life has its own plan.

The July Fourth getaway to a family cottage left Fedor fighting for survival after a freak accident. Hearing a stormy forecast, he decided to dive in for a quick swim before bad weather settled in. What he didn’t realize was that the water depth had diminished since his last visit — after his head slammed into the bottom of the lake, Fedor found himself unable to move while lying face down in 33 inches of water.

“All I remember is my heart beating so fast and so loud that the sound filled the entire lake. I said some prayers and then swallowed as much water as I could so I could die quickly.”

When Fedor awoke, he was in the hospital, having broken his neck at the C3 level, which is about the highest-level break possible. The man who always was “go, go, go” found himself at a screeching halt, and the promising young manager faced his most critical decision — whether or not he wanted to go on living.

“In the first days when I came out of the coma, I prepared for the end. I didn’t want to live,” Fedor says. But as the doctor explained that he would never again breathe on his own, feed himself, or walk — and asked Fedor what he wanted to do — he quickly replied that he wanted to go on. “I was surprised how easy it was to say that, given I had just been given what amounted to a living death sentence.”

Fedor channeled his energy and drive into his recovery, spending the next 20 months in a hospital and rehabilitation facility. The same fearlessness that previously had led him to skydive now propelled him to push the boundaries of his physical therapy. But the physical struggles were matched by the mental and emotional ones: “I didn’t understand why this had happened, and I still don’t. The emotional impact never goes away, but it changes over time.”

Fedor defied the odds by breathing and eating on his own. He now lives in his own apartment, with round-the-clock care, and uses voice-activated software to compose emails, blog (one entry about meeting Bruce Springsteen got 56,000 hits), and more. As he grew stronger, the man who had been building a successful career in marketing focused on selling a new product — hope. Fedor had always enjoyed infusing positive messages into his marketing presentations and liked collecting inspirational quotes and stories. He also was at home speaking in front of large crowds. So when he was asked to talk about his recovery at a spinal cord injury symposium, he eagerly agreed.

“Once I got myself straight mentally and emotionally, it helped me physically,” he says. “I liked sharing that message with others.”

Fedor’s remarks were so well received that he now is booked regularly for speaking engagements at schools, hospitals, churches, businesses, and civic groups. He says his injury has made him realize there are ways he can help people that he wouldn’t have tapped into otherwise. But he shrugs off the notion of being inspiring.

“The definition of ‘inspire’ is to cause someone to act. People might be moved by my story, but does it cause them to do something differently in their own lives?”

Besides encouraging people to evaluate their lives and priorities, Fedor also uses his platform to raise awareness of the prevalence of spinal cord injuries (SCI) and the hurdles facing survivors. In 2011 he launched a nonprofit foundation, Getting Back Up, which is dedicated to helping SCI survivors increase their quality of life, since insurance plans don’t cover such items as voice-activated software, standing frames for stretching the body, or the barrier-free modifications most homes require. “It’s the little things that can make such a huge difference not just physically, but mentally and emotionally,” Fedor says.

Through the organization, Fedor also is developing plans for an independent-living facility (known as “The Quad”) for paraplegics and quadriplegics. In addition to fostering a sense of comfort and camaraderie not available in many nursing facilities, it will allow residences to share expenses for therapy and other needs. “Many survivors of these injuries are young,” Fedor says, “yet they’re often relegated to homes with elderly residents. We need an alternative for young people that are still vibrant and want to contribute to society. Just because you have a devastating injury and are confined to a wheelchair doesn’t mean you can’t still have fun.”

The project allows Fedor to tap his pre-injury training and career skill set. “We are using our knowledge and resources to effectively market the Quad, run it, and put the strategy in place,” he says. “Then we will need to manage the idea in a sustainable way. It reminds me of the case studies we used to do at Michigan.”

Fedor says he definitely is not a “Pollyanna,” but the accident has caused him to be more aware and appreciative of the little things in life — from sharing a laugh with friends to feeling the summer sun on his face. And while his life might not be following the course he originally charted, he’s making the most of the opportunities that still lie in front of him.

“For awhile after my injury, I would wake up in the morning and my first thought would be ‘I can’t move.’ Now my first thought is that it’s time to get going and start the day. I probably get as much done in a day now as I did before the accident. I just do it differently.”

— Amy Spooner

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