Broken: Quadriplegic Ross Mason has an ambitious plan to fix spinal cord injury treatment
Story by Van Jensen • Photos of Ross Mason by Kelvin Kuo
Mathematician Edward Lorenz was preparing to run a computer weather prediction in 1961 when he took a shortcut. He entered .506 into the number sequence instead of the full .506127.
That seemingly insignificant difference completely changed the predicted weather pattern. Lorenz’s finding helped establish chaos theory — the idea that dynamic systems can be highly sensitive to the smallest of influences.
A talk by Lorenz famously was titled “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”
On the evening of Aug. 2, 2007, a bee was flying along the Silver Comet Trail near Atlanta. The bee came into the path of a small but athletic man riding a bicycle. It collided with his face, becoming stuck in his helmet. The rider raised a hand to brush away the bee. As he did, his elbow grazed the handlebar.
The man was a competitive cyclist, and the bike was moving so fast that the slight movement of the handlebar threw it off course. The bike launched off the trail and landed with the rider’s feet still locked into the pedals, both sliding headfirst down a hill.
The cyclist’s head collided with something large and hard enough to crack open his helmet. When he and the bike finally came to rest, a piece of brush was pressed against his throat. He could barely breathe.
By instinct, the rider’s brain commanded his hands to push away the brush.
His hands would not move.
What Needs Fixing
Ross Mason, IE 92, lives in an expansive home in Atlanta. Off of a wide entrance hall is his office.
A broad desk is covered with papers but organized. The dark wooden walls are decorated with portraits of leaders from the American Revolution and Civil War.
Now 40, Mason enters, his motorized wheelchair moving silently across the floor. His features have rounded since his days as a world-class athlete, but he still has the same smile and energy.
Gisele Umutesi, who works as his caregiver, walks in. She fled the genocide in Rwanda and was granted asylum in the United States before landing in Mason’s employ. Umutesi asks about a remote control to turn off the TV in another room. Mason starts to suggest places it might be before realizing it is sitting in his lap. He can’t feel it.
In one corner of the room stands an easel that props up a whiteboard. Scrawled across the board is what looks like a family tree. Names and ideas are organized into a hierarchy. At the top, enclosed in a rectangle, is “HINRI Labs.”
The Healthcare Institute for Neuro-Recovery and Innovation (www.hinri.com) is Mason’s nonprofit. The scattered notes all connected to HINRI form a road map, a path to fixing what has been broken.
Mason isn’t obsessed with repairing his spinal cord. Always one to seek out challenges, he has taken it upon himself to repair the entire system of spinal cord injury treatment and to make Georgia the center of a revolution in regenerative medicine.
A Life of Extremes
Ross Mason grew up in Madison, Ga., where his family owned a peach farm going back several generations.
He followed his father, Robert, IM 60, to Georgia Tech. Wanting to squeeze the most out of every experience, Ross Mason became as involved as a student can be. He worked as a co-op student at IBM, started a company to make energy-efficient lighting, served as a dorm resident assistant, joined Alpha Tau Omega, studied abroad, went on a mission trip to Poland and, finally, was elected student government president.
On the recommendation of Dean Jim Dull, Mason was accepted to the Wharton School. He deferred when a family friend offered a challenging opportunity: a teaching position in Siberia and chance to establish a student exchange program with the University System of Georgia.
During his two years in Russia, Mason visited Moscow and learned that, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the real estate market was booming. Seeing another challenge, he started a real estate firm in the city. Mason leased apartments from Russian owners, renovated the properties and then rented them to westerners who were staying in the country for business.
He operated the company for 12 years, even after leaving Russia for Wharton in 1994. Once, he got a call that a unit had been taken over by Russian mobsters and converted to a brothel. The police suspected Mason’s involvement and threatened to have him arrested.
He finally had a friend with connections go to the mayor of Moscow, and authorities forced the mob out of the apartment. “I got a degree in entrepreneurial management from the Russian school of hard knocks,” he says.
After interning at Morgan Stanley while at Wharton, Mason helped the investment firm open its Atlanta office once he received his MBA in 1997. He enjoyed the position, but he missed the freedom of being an entrepreneur.
He left the firm in 1999 and used his free time to travel with family to Zambia, where they volunteered at an AIDS hospital.
“That experience really changed my life,” he says. “It was so transformative. The people in Africa have the most amazing perspective on life. I knew that health care was my calling.”
But first he flew straight to the Canadian Arctic, where he and some friends planned to be the first sport divers in the frigid waters there. Mason laughs while recalling the dangerous adventures they had, including losing a snowmobile through broken ice and later diving to retrieve it from the ocean floor. The group, which later established the Arctic Kingdom adventure company, swam alongside polar bears, whales and walruses.
It was just the latest adventure in a life full of pushing toward extremes. Mason had been rock climbing, spelunking and surfing around the world. He was a NASCAR-certified driver and once bungee jumped off of Victoria Falls.
After leaving the arctic, Mason moved to California for five years and helped start a health care Internet software company. He saw how the state invested in fledgling enterprises and future technologies, which led to the growth of Silicon Valley.
His next stop was in Germany, where he served as an adviser to the Volkswagen health care venture accelerator fund. The fund invested 280 million Euros in 90 companies, including 30 early-stage health care businesses.
“I wanted to develop a health care early-stage investment model in Georgia,” he said.
With a loose plan in mind of working as a health care entrepreneur in his home state, Mason returned to Atlanta. He became a fellow at Newt Gingrich’s Center for Health Transformation, vice chair of the state’s department of community health board and chair of the Georgia Free Clinic Network.
He helped the Free Clinic Network raise $600,000 in six months, which allowed volunteers to care for more than 250,000 homeless, indigent and uninsured Georgians. That care saved the state about $400 million in 2009, according to the state auditor.
“Georgia has a wonderful advantage in health care, but we haven’t focused as a state,” Mason says, referring to Georgia’s highly rated research institutions and hospitals. “Counties are competing against each other to promote local hospitals. There is a focus on collaborative investment in California that we don’t have here.”
On Aug. 2, 2007, Mason met for lunch with several fellow entrepreneurs. They talked about a company started out of research from Harvard and MIT that uses nanotech polymer implants to restore spinal cord function in injured patients. Mason and the others wanted to recruit the company to Georgia.
Mason left the meeting and seven hours later started a bicycle ride along the Silver Comet Trail. He was training for the New Zealand Ironman, what was to be his latest extreme challenge.
The Biggest Obstacle
Mason was struggling to breathe. He again told his hands to move. They wouldn’t. Neither would his legs.
Finally, his lower arm responded and pushed the branch away. He could breathe again, but he still couldn’t get up.
Some people hiking along the trail found him and called for an ambulance. When the emergency medical technicians arrived to take him to the hospital, one asked if Mason understood how seriously he’d been injured.
Mason said he did. The technician asked why Mason continued to smile.
“I told him I’d put my life in God’s hands,” he says. “If it was my time to go, it was my time to go. If not, God must still have something else for me to do here.”
It wasn’t his time.
At Grady Memorial Hospital, Sanjay Gupta was Mason’s surgeon. Gupta, the CNN medical correspondent, stabilized Mason’s smashed vertebrae.
Slowly some movement returned to Mason’s arms as he went through recovery and then rehabilitation in the following months at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. Among his visitors in the hospital was Newt Gingrich.
But more challenges awaited Mason. He learned that he’d suffered a complete break of his spinal cord. He’d never walk again. A month passed before he could sit up without losing consciousness.
He needed to have his bladder drained every few hours by the nurses. But one day his bladder filled more quickly than normal, and a nurse at first refused to insert a catheter despite Mason’s spiking blood pressure.
“It felt like I had a spit running through my body, and I was being roasted over a fire,” Mason says. “That was the most helpless feeling. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t push a button. You’re completely dependent on someone else, and if they’re negligent, you’re going to pay the price the rest of your life. I was a 38-year-old man, and I just wanted to go to the bathroom.”
Finally, the nurse drained Mason’s bladder, which by then was four times fuller than it should have been. Mason says he could’ve easily gone into dysreflexic shock and suffered brain damage.
While Mason says the support of his family and friends was crucial for him making it through that difficult time, his injury was too difficult for some of them to deal with.
“Some of my dearest friends just went away because they couldn’t handle it,” he says. “They don’t want to be around me. I’ve had that happen with a number of people I’ve known all of my life.”
One of the biggest challenges that arose was cost. The expense of his treatment began to mount. Mason’s insurance company didn’t want to pay for his care and claimed his injury was a pre-existing condition.
“If your insurance company can successfully fight you for two years, they can defer payment until you go on Medicaid,” he says. “Most patients with a spinal cord injury end up having to pay for rehab out of pocket.”
Mason also tried alternative treatment methods such as interactive manual therapy, but those cost thousands of dollars a week.
The expense of spinal cord injury treatment is taxing the health care system, according to a 2009 report from the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. Spinal cord injury treatment alone costs $40.5 billion per year in the United States.
Nearly 5.6 million Americans live with some form of paralysis, the report states. About 1.3 million are living with spinal cord injuries.
Mason began to do more research during the following two years of recovery and learned that one of the main causes of permanent paralysis isn’t the injury itself but the inflammation that follows. He met with leading researchers from China, where surgeons routinely cut open the spinal cord to relieve inflammation. There, about half of those with complete spinal cord injuries walk again. In the United States, where surgeons operate around the spinal cord to secure the vertebrae, only 1 percent of patients with complete injuries walk again.
Patients in China also receive a standard of six hours of therapy a day for six days a week, no matter how serious the injury. In the United States, insurance will pay for rehab only for those who have “incomplete” injuries — in which patients retain some function or sensation below the break. But even those patients receive only three to five hours of treatment per week.
“That’s unacceptable,” Mason says.
One day during rehab, a nurse handed Mason a pencil and asked him to write the alphabet.
“I asked if I’d get a diaper as a reward,” he recalls his sarcastic response. “Why not tell me to write a letter to a wounded soldier? That would serve a purpose. That would motivate me to write again.”
Mason had the military on his mind. He’d been working on his plan to fix spinal injury treatment, and he wanted to establish Georgia as the center of spinal cord research. And he’d discovered that a partnership with the U.S. military was key.
Mason had met with Gingrich and leading researchers. He testified before Congress in March 2009 regarding the congressionally directed medical research program’s first allocation for spinal cord injury research. But one problem kept arising: “bringing money to Georgia.”
In August 2009, Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson and Mason hosted a meeting with the state’s health care, business and philanthropic leaders to discuss opportunities to become a player in the industry, particularly the nexus of engineering, computer science and biology.
In the meeting, Mason pointed out that other states were investing millions or even billions in bioengineering research and health care technologies. By contrast, Georgia announced it was committing only $400,000 to become a “global center of medical innovation.” Mason needed to find another way to fund his dream.
Earlier in 2009, the Department of Veterans Affairs created the Veterans Innovation Center to provide funding for research that could improve the lives of injured veterans. And it was looking for a home.
“Why shouldn’t that be in Georgia?” Mason says. “A partnership with the military could make the state an international leader in restorative medicine.”
Quickly, the lines in Mason’s road map came together. Augusta is home to Fort Gordon and the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center. The city has the nation’s largest warrior transition battalion, burn center and active duty spinal cord injury population. Atlanta has a VA medical center, top hospitals and Georgia Tech and Emory, which operate the joint Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering. The department is ranked in the top three in the nation for graduate and undergraduate bioengineering programs.
Hundreds of other little details were gathered into the plan, with Mason always seeing more opportunities and more problems to fix. He wants to recruit the Morehouse School of Medicine into the Georgia Research Alliance, create a statewide collaboration on clinical trials and fix technology transfer, among others.
He launched the nonprofit HINRI Labs earlier this year to serve as the center of this effort, a single connection point for all of the disparate groups, agencies and individuals involved. Mason hopes to partner the nonprofit with the Veterans Innovation Center to bring funding to researchers and then to spin off for-profit businesses from that research.
Mason talks quickly, constantly gesturing with his hands and directing his wheelchair back and forth across the floor. The intensity of his days as an extreme athlete and serial entrepreneur haven’t faded. He’s just learned new ways to channel it.
“We’ll take intellectual property and commercialize it,” he says. “We can drive collaboration between PhD researchers, clinicians, patients and companies with exciting new technologies. Right now it’s a totally disconnected system with everyone operating in silos and not communicating.”
But on his whiteboard, everything connects. It is a completed circuit, each part communicating and partnering toward a single goal: repairing broken spinal cords.
The first step for making the map a reality is recruiting the Veterans Innovation Center. Currently its leaders are deciding between establishing the center in Georgia or Illinois. To bring the center to Georgia, Mason has been raising a needed $3 million, with less than $1 million to go.
He’s planning fundraisers to make sure he’ll meet that objective. It’s just one more hurdle he’s determined to overcome.
There is a common misperception about chaos theory. Because such small things can wield such great influence, the logic extends that people’s actions become meaningless next to the whims of an anarchic world.
But the butterfly effect simply means that, in certain systems, the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings could have a substantial impact. That butterfly isn’t a random factor but part of the system. The fluttering of its wings is a minuscule but necessary piece of the larger plan.
Mason believes in something larger, that his injury was necessary to help the lives of others.
“An injury like mine is a divine gift and a sacred trust,” Mason says. “I’m honored that God would trust me with a situation like this.”
He believes that greatness can grow from little things, like the fluttering of a butterfly or the flight of a bee.
—Reprinted with permission from the July-August 2010 edition of Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine