When Chanda Hinton Leichtle was nine years old, she was playing with friends when one of them picked up a .22 rifle. He thought it was unloaded. Instead, a bullet was discharged, severing Hinton Leichtle’s spinal cord between her C5 and C6 vertebrae and making her a quadriplegic before she hit puberty.
While Hinton Leichtle was determined not to let her injury slow her down, her powered wheelchair only allowed her to travel—not to move. At the time, she was living in rural Nebraska, and her treatment plan consisted primarily of medications to alleviate her pain. By the time she was 21 years old, her 59-pound body became so frail that she spent a month in the hospital, receiving sustenance through a feeding tube.
Knowing that Hinton Leichtle needed to find a different way to stay healthy, her sister Crystal, a yoga teacher, started introducing her to integrative therapies, including acupuncture, massage, chiropractic work, and adaptive exercise, which are designed to complement Western medicine.
“When I realized the benefits [of integrative therapies]—mentally, physically, emotionally, everything—I started to blog and learned about other people, not just in the state of Colorado, but all over the country, who were born with muscular dystrophy or diagnosed with MS [and having similar experiences],” says Hinton Leichtle, who eventually earned a degree in communications from the University of Denver. “It wasn’t just my story, it was a huge epidemic, and nobody was talking about it or offering a way for things to be changed or redefined in the way we approach disabilities.”
Driven by her experience, in 2005 Hinton Leichtle created the Denver-based Chanda Plan Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with physical disabilities by providing integrative practices free of charge. (Medicaid does not currently cover these services, and neither do some insurance plans.) Last year, the nonprofit provided 4,357 treatments to more than 100 people nationwide. And on Thursday, the organization will hold its annual fundraiser—the Big Event, featuring Last Comic Standing winner and cerebral palsy patient Josh Blue—to celebrate a decade of changing lives.
The bodily processes many of us take for granted, such as blood circulation and bone density, are problems that those with long-term physical disabilities need to actively address. Integrative therapies offered by the Chanda Plan Foundation can be customized to assist in different functions. Acupuncture, for instance, provides stimulation to the digestive system—a very necessary treatment when the brain can’t communicate with the bladder or bowels. Massage therapy, which can also be used to simulate the intestines, prevents clots and pressure sores that can build up when blood isn’t properly circulating to the lower limbs.
Adaptive exercise, the most popular of the services offered by the Chanda Plan Foundation, goes even further: While the specifics vary based on individuals’ needs, the workout frequently involves a bike that causes the legs to spasm through electrode charges, moving them to increase bone density and improve blood circulation.
For Hinton Leichtle, adaptive exercise is simply part of her normal routine. (She pays for her own integrative therapies.) “These are just ongoing things to maintain wellness,” Hinton Leichtle says. “Able bodies go to the gym, but we can’t work out at 24 Hour Fitness.”
The Chanda Plan Foundation addresses more than just paralysis, but it does limit its focus to six specific areas: spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and brain injuries. Those with greater health or financial needs often win out for the foundation’s free treatments, which are limited based on funding constraints. It does plan to add primary care physicians to its headquarters in the future. (Hinton Leichtle and her colleagues have discovered that it’s difficult to find doctors experienced in dealing with long-term disabled patients.)
“When I was sick, there had to have been people with disabilities who were getting access to some limited amount of integrative therapies, but it was likely because [the caregivers] thought it would feel good or would be a way to pamper them,” Hinton Leichtle says. “No, this is actually a significant treatment—not just a luxury. It’s critical to the lifespan and quality of life of an individual.”
The Chanda Plan Foundation’s Big Event will take place Thursday, April 16, at 5 p.m. at Exdo Event Center, 1399 35th St., 303-468-5443, exdoevents.com. Visit iamtheplan.org/bigevent to register.
Follow editorial assistant Mary Clare Fischer on Twitter at @mc_fischer.