At the moment, Chanda Hinton Leichtle's back resembles that of a stegosaurus.
Thin stainless-steel needles stand sentry on either side of her spine as she lies on a padded table facing the wall. It's a position the small, feisty thirty-year-old can't get into on her own: When she was nine, a teenage boy accidentally shot her, severing her spinal cord and paralyzing her below the chest. To get her here, her acupuncturist lifts her from her wheelchair and carries her, like a bride over a threshold. He props a pillow between her legs, hikes up her red Nebraska Huskers T-shirt, unwraps his sterile needles and taps them into the skin above where her black lace underwear peeks out from the top of her yoga pants.
Hinton Leichtle is quiet. A heat lamp bathes her face in warmth, and soothing music plays on a stereo. It's a sharp contrast to the way she rolled in, upbeat and joking, her iPhone in one hand and a pair of white earbuds snaked around her neck. Soon after acupuncturist Stephen Corsale took a seat on a cream-colored exercise ball to ask her how she's been, Hinton Leichtle was multi-tasking, answering his questions and text-messaging at the same time. The texts, like much of what Hinton Leichtle does, are work-related. But for her, work is personal: She's on a mission to change the way modern medicine treats people with disabilities, and the texts inform her there's been another snag, another misunderstanding she has to sort out.
"Any bodily pains?" Corsale asks her.
"No," Hinton Leichtle answers. "I'm doing really good."
"We'll do a little de-irritating, then," he says.
"De-irritating," she says, smiling. "Yeah, let's do that."
For the past seven years, Hinton Leichtle has been fighting — as the director of her own nonprofit, the Chanda Plan Foundation — to provide massage, adaptive yoga, chiropractic services and other alternative therapies to people with physical disabilities.
Although the medical field has been slow to research its benefits, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that alternative medicine keeps people with disabilities healthier and out of the hospital. In 2005, two years after Hinton Leichtle discovered acupuncture following her own emergency hospital stay, she founded the Chanda Plan, which raises money to pay for alternative therapies for people with spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and spina bifida whose insurance companies don't pay for them. (Most don't.)
But that wasn't enough. So in 2008, she took her fight to the State Capitol, pushing for legislation to create a unique pilot program that would allow Medicaid to pay for certain alternative therapies for people with spinal cord injuries. The bill was vetoed due to funding issues, but Hinton Leichtle convinced lawmakers to run it again the next year, this time with the promise that her foundation would raise the seed money. It passed, and she's spent three years getting it up and running, a process full of bureaucratic tangles and setbacks.
The program is now on the cusp of starting, and for Hinton Leichtle, the morning acupuncture session is a break from her role as chief architect, problem solver and champion.
"There's some activity there, but we're trying to get more activation," Corsale explains as he works one of the tiny, flexible needles into a key pressure point. In addition to relieving pain and stress, acupuncture helps kick-start activity in Hinton Leichtle's kidneys, bladder and uterus — organs that function more sluggishly than normal because of her injury. Though the needles can sting a bit, Hinton Leichtle prefers them to the noxious drugs she took previously to treat the chronic aches, spasms and infections that come with having a spinal cord injury.
"It's just a totally different atmosphere when you go to a physician's office than here," she says, her voice growing drowsy. "I would rather do this than just take medication."
And if she has her way, she and the quarter-million people in the United States living with spinal cord injuries — many who were hurt while they were young — will have that option.
The summer before fourth grade, Hinton Leichtle spent a week with family friends while her own family moved from Grand Island, Nebraska, to the town of Cairo. The family friends had a son and a daughter, and the day before Hinton Leichtle's stay was up, the mother took the daughter to an appointment, leaving her fourteen-year-old son and his friend to babysit their nine-year-old guest.
The boys spent the August afternoon target shooting, a common pastime in their rural town. After a while, they went inside to take a break and eat popsicles. When Hinton Leichtle said she wanted one, too, they teased her. You can have a popsicle, they said, but not a red one. Hinton Leichtle obeyed at first, choosing purple. But the stubborn blue-eyed blonde wasn't going to let them win; when they weren't looking, she swapped the purple for a red. That's when the son of the family made a joke that changed her life forever. "He's like, 'Let's just shoot her so we don't have to worry about her taking our popsicles,'" she recalls.