Jessica Harthcock, CEO of Utilize Health, is paralyzed for life. Six years after her injury, she walked unassisted down the aisle at her own wedding. Here's how she worked herself a miracle...
We interview transformative Breakers – some transform themselves, some the world around them. No transformation, however, compares to Jessica. She quite literally worked herself a miracle.
During diving practice in high school, Jessica fell wrong. She suffered a complete spinal cord injury. The damage was so bad that all commonly accepted medical knowledge confirmed the worst: Jessica would never walk again.
If you met Jessica today, she would walk up to you and shake your hand. She cannot feel her legs, but she can walk with them unassisted. No walker, no crutches. Nothing.
The sheer force of will Jessica conveyed in order to walk again is mind-boggling. It should be no surprise, then, that Jessica also started a successful company, Utilize Health, which helps tailor treatment for patients with injuries similar to hers. Her entrepreneurship is what makes Jessica a Breaker, but the story of her recovery is so incredible that we couldn’t help indulging...
Are you comfortable recounting exactly what happened?
Yeah, sure! I was a springboard diver in high school. I had just finished my junior year, so this was a couple days after school let out. I was competitive. To be good at springboard diving, you really need to practice gymnastics. We call it “dry land diving." So, I was doing that because I was getting ready to go to a dive camp up at Indiana University, and at the time they were ranked in the top five of the country.
I was practicing a front-double tuck with a layout twist. I went up in the air to do the trick and came down wrong. I cracked my head open, and I knew something was wrong because my whole body went numb, I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t move, but I could still see everything around me. I knew that the injury was crappy at that point.
The injury left me paralyzed. I had a damaged spinal cord. I ended up having surgery in Cincinnati—the injury happened in Evansville, Indiana—and then they transferred me to Frazier Institute, which is in Louisville, Kentucky. I did rehab there, inpatient rehab, which is where they teach you things: how to use a wheel chair; how to get dressed by yourself; how to transfer onto a chair. At that point my prognosis was pretty grim; doctors were saying I wouldn’t recover, I wouldn’t walk again.
How old were you?
I was seventeen.
When did you start to think the doctors might be wrong?
About three weeks after I got home from the hospital, I saw a Discovery Channel documentary on complete spinal cord injuries, which is exactly what mine was. These three patients were using a machine called a Lokomat. All of this research was being done overseas, but not in the U.S. These three patients had learned to walk again. They weren’t walking well, but they were stepping. I was so mesmerized by what they had accomplished. That right there was all I needed.
What is a Lokomat?
A Lokomat is what a layperson would call a robotic walking machine. It’s very, very cool. It basically walks your legs. The premise is that your muscles have memory and eventually something will trigger either a spasm or a little muscle movement.
Did the doctors say you had a chance using the Lokomat?
Not at all. I mean, we went everywhere. Nobody’s opinions changed and everyone said that I wouldn’t recover. When I got down to Miami, I actually saw four Lokomats. They had them in Miami because that was the number one place for research in the country. And I said, “I wanna get on one of those,” and my doctor, who is very world renowned, his name is Dr. Barth Green, he was like, “Look. I can see that you’ve been a lot of places. I’m not going to tell you you’re not going to walk again because the truth is we don’t know. You don’t meet any of the inclusion criteria for our research studies because of the extent of your injury, but one day you might, so keep looking.”
Devastating. Where were you at this time in your life?
This all happened while I was finishing high school, and then I went to college at a local university, lived in the dorm, started my fall semester, all while still doing out-patient therapy at a local facility. I also worked with trainers, personal trainers at the gym who had rehab experience behind them, because it was another way to keep getting my body to do other things. I started working out with this guy named Adam. With Adam I did really, really well that whole year after I got hurt.
"It wasn’t like this big beautiful step. I scooted my foot barely. But, we counted that as a step. I didn’t, but everyone else did."
How long after the accident was it before you took your first step?
About two years and nine months after the accident, I learned to take a step.
Did you just wake up one night and start feeling your legs again?
The movies always make it look like you take one step, then two, and then ten, but it’s not like that at all. I still don’t have feeling today from my chest down. The sensation has never come back, unfortunately. During training, I would have a muscle twitch in my leg. I had a lot of spasticity in my legs, so when I was able to take my first step they had my leg braces on, had finally taken the bar out, and they had E-Stem—electrical stimulation—on my muscles. Whenever that electrical stimulation goes off it basically contracts your muscles to move, so I was able to take a step. I was in between parallel bars with all this stuff on me, therapists on all sides of me, and when I say step I mean more like the scoot of a foot. It wasn’t like this big beautiful step. I scooted my foot barely. But, we counted it as a step. I didn’t, but everyone else did.
But how did you learn to walk without any assistance?
The Lokomat had come to the U.S., and there was 17 of these machines across the country. I applied to every single study that had a Lokomat, but got rejected due to the extent of my injuries. But there was one Lokomat up in Chicago at a facility called Next Steps.
Next Steps is a facility started by a man named John O’Connor; he had a spinal cord injury as well and is a paraplegic. He was independently wealthy and basically just started this facility for other people to come and use. It’s a small facility, but it is the most incredible place I had ever been to. At the time they didn’t use physical therapists; they used trainers who push you to your limits. It's a real boot camp. I ended up going to Chicago and staying for 9 months.
Nine months later, I was ripped. I could do pull-ups, I could stand in a walker with my leg braces, and kind of scoot forward. I also learned to hop a little bit, but I still wasn’t what I’d define as “walking,” because my legs weren’t moving independently. I wasn’t strong enough. But I wanted to return to school my sophomore year because I had been away since the year before. Went back to school, joined a sorority, and that trainer Adam and I started dating. We actually started dating two months after we met. Kind of funny, kind of cheesy, but it really is an important part of the story...
Dating you trainer must have been great for your recovery!
Yeah! His big task at first was to help me learn how to sit up by myself. There was this one moment I remember distinctly where I sat up for maybe half a second by myself and I swear to you, I thought he was going to kiss me. We were just friends at the time, but there was definitely some chemistry there. Since he didn’t kiss me, I fell over and sorta ruined the moment. It was the strangest thing, our eyes locked, and, I kid you not, we didn’t talk about that moment until we were on our honeymoon five years later. We still actually laugh about it today, just making fun of ourselves.
That is something straight out of a John Green novel! Still, I'm dying of curiosity about how you actually walked again. Do you still have to use a E-Stem? Is that how it works?
Nope, I continued to use that all through therapy, and then we were able to train my legs to not need it. I learned how to activate my hip-flexors and swing my leg through as more of a step. That summer I had become quite good, and I was able to learn how to walk without the leg braces.
Adam proposed my senior year in front of the sorority. I was engaged and that really motivated me to kill therapy because I knew I wanted to be as strong as possible for the wedding. By the time it rolled around, I was able to walk completely unassisted. I didn’t need anything anymore.
That is simply amazing. I just don’t understand how it’s possible from a scientific perspective. What’s the science of it?
The science behind it, I’d say, is really muscle memory: I could do it before, so I can do it now. It took the whole of six years. Retraining that body—it takes freakin’ forever. I definitely have muscle memory that’s back, and definitely have had signals from my spinal cord (even though my injury was severe). Even after six years I still couldn’t walk sideways, backwards, walk stairs. I could walk forward and that was it. Today, I’m twelve years post-injury (June 7th will be twelve years), and I can walk forward, backward, sideways, and up stairs. But mind you, the time it’s taken…
If I were to pinch your leg, would you feel it?
What you’re saying is somehow your legs just remember how to walk on their own?
Yeah. It’s funny…I’m not alone. I’ve met so many people who can walk after being paralyzed. There’s more of us than you think.
"I was engaged and that really motivated me to kill therapy because I knew I wanted to be as strong as possible for the wedding. By the time it rolled around, I was able to walk completely unassisted. I didn’t need anything anymore."
Did it make you kind of pissed off at all those doctors who were so wrong?
No. I just wish that more doctors would say, “Hey—this is what the book’s saying, but then again, I have seen people overcome the odds.”
I could listen to you talk about this literally all day, but we have to talk about your business a little bit. What is Utilize Health?
As I started to recover, patients would reach out for me—ones I had never met—and say, “Hey, you don’t know me, but I’ve heard about your success and your recovery; can you help me too?” Very organically, I started helping them.
When I was at Vanderbilt, probably the 100th patient had reached out to me. The recoveries were amazing to me, but the problem with patients not having resources was very prevalent.
I started exploring the problem from the perspective of different stakeholders: patients, providers, and health plans. And I essentially came up with the idea to create a platform that aggregates information to help patients find resources.
After a messy first year, which was as total failure, Adam, who is my business partner, told me to get my big girl panties on and make it work. We started getting better and I competed in The Global Student Health Innovation Challenge, which took place here in Nashville. Only six out of a few hundred companies who applied got in, and we were one of the six. We didn’t win, but The Tennessean did a really nice article on us. By the next morning I woke up to hundreds of emails from across the country, LinkedIn requests, Facebook messages; they called us from the paper and asked if we had seen USA Today—because they had picked up our story. We didn’t even have a website!
What is the service today?
The service is matching patients to therapies and facilities that they need to recover. That’s the core of it. Over the years, we’ve collected all of this data from different facilities across the country, so we can match patients to the resources that they need.
How did you fund the early stages?
At first, no one was paying. We didn’t have money to do anything! Manual matching, which is what we did at first, takes up to 10-14 days per patient, which is difficult to say the least. When you automate it just takes a second, a click of a button. It took us about four months to make the automated program, and that gave us a lot of traction.
After the pilot, we did a crowd funding campaign because the need was still great. We said, “look guys, if you want to see this happen, we need a web application; help us raise money.” We raised almost $40,000 through that, continued to enter pitch competitions. Investors said, “We get what you’re doing, let’s talk about it further.” They ended up putting $750,000 into the company, and we cleared that money in November of 2014.
How is it monetized?
Two ways – Heath plans and hospital provider systems pay for our complex care coordination solution. We also have a small revenue stream through the consumer site.
And whatever health benefits they have, they can use your service…
Yes. I’ll reach out, say, “hi, I’m Jessica from such and such health plan. Would you like this service?” Almost every time they say “Absolutely.” And then we help them with whatever it is that they need for the duration they are on that health plan.
What's next for you?
I think I’ve got quite awhile with Utilize Health. That's only thing I can think about now. But, we’re huge dreamers, Adam and I. But we gotta get this baby up and going. The baby’s still in diapers now.
Just learning to walk?