Iowa State University

News Service

News Service:

Annette Hacker, director,
(515) 294-3720

Office: (515) 294-4777



Lee Harris, Iowa State student, (515) 450-8016,

Dan Kuester, News Service, (515) 294-0704,

After accident, student vows 'Forever is not an option'

'Free Lee' logo

AMES, Iowa -- Just over a year ago, the life of Iowa State sophomore Lee Harris changed dramatically.

Harris severed his spinal column in a motorcycle accident and became paralyzed from the chest down.

Though his doctors told him he would never walk again, he wasn't satisfied with that assessment.

"My family and I decided right away that we were not going to leave it at that," he said.

So Harris and his family started doing some research and they found an alternative to doing nothing.

'We are going to try something'

"Even though they say it can't be done, we are going to try something, and this is what we found that is most promising," said Harris.

What -- or who -- Harris found is Dr. Carlos Lima, who is working with stem cells to regenerate new spinal nerve cells. Dr. Lima will perform surgery on Harris that will require taking olfactory stem cells from Harris' nose and implanting them in his back at the point at which his spinal cord is injured. The stem cells will then grow, hopefully, into spinal cells that would reconnect the nerves in his spinal column. This could give Harris a chance to walk again. But the surgery is experimental.

And because it is experimental, it's not yet allowed in the United States. And it's not covered by insurance.

So, Harris is going to Portugal to have the procedure done, and he needs to come up with the money. Lots of it.

$150,000 needed

Harris, his family and friends estimate that more than $150,000 will be required to get to Portugal, have the surgery and start the rehabilitation in Detroit -- also not covered by insurance.

The entrepreneurial Harris is hoping he can raise the money as effortlessly as he has picked up his life where it was before the accident. He now lives with the same roommate, in the same apartment and works at the same part-time job as he did before the accident.

As if the normal, pre-accident routine wasn't enough, Harris also has started an engineering internship at Kreg Tool Company in Huxley on top of his other commitments.

To raise the needed funds, Harris has enlisted an army of about 20 family members and close friends who are helping him arrange auctions, raffles, concerts and other events.

Harris takes the lead

But it is Harris who is taking the lead.

To bring attention to his situation, he has adopted the taglines of "Forever is not an option" and "Free Lee" -- the latter includes a graphic he designed himself.

He also has a page on the Internet at to tell his story and solicit donations. He is learning HTML computer language so he can produce a site that better tells his story. He has already started that site at

T-shirts are available with Harris' design on them and stickers bearing the graphic and Web site address are beginning to turn up around campus -- all the work of Harris and his supporters.

Under the circumstances, other people may have considered curbing their activities. Harris is busier now than ever. He is a full-time student in mechanical engineering, works at a local home improvement store, has his internship and spends six to 10 hours each week organizing the fundraising efforts.

Of being in a wheelchair, Harris says, "It hasn't kept me from doing anything. Everything is just a little bit harder and takes a little bit longer to do."

But for Harris, the fund raising can't take too long.

Fund-raising deadline approaches

The surgery, which Harris wasn't expecting for a few years, has been scheduled for Feb. 9, 2007. So Harris has to raise the money quickly if he is to meet the deadline.

A few corporate benefactors, including Mid-American Group and Coldwell Banker have been generous and given him a good start toward reaching his goal. But there is a long road ahead, and Harris is resolute.

He also doesn't see his disability as an obstacle to getting it done.

"I have not let it stop me from doing anything," he said.

After surgery, six months will pass before Harris might see any improvement, and at least two years until he knows if the surgery was successful.

Harris has talked to others who have had this surgery, and after many months of hard work, some have shown real signs of improvement.

Just over a year ago, Harris' life changed dramatically. And with some help from his friends, and people willing to donate, he is hoping to change it again.


Lee Harris

Lee Harris


"It hasn't kept me from doing anything. Everything is just a little bit harder and takes a little bit longer to do."

Lee Harris, sophomore in mechanical engineering