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Paralyzed as a teen, Sabrina Cohen fights to cure others

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Editor’s note: This article was a winner in the Overcoming Adversity category of the America Inspired Contest, which celebrated extraordinary people making a difference across the United States. We invite you to read about these amazing people.

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Sabrina Cohen has performed stand-up comedy from a wheelchair, rolled the catwalk as a fashion model, and donned scarcely more than a bikini's worth of body paint, all in the name of raising money for medical research. She's also lobbied Congress, hobnobbed with Bill and Hillary Clinton, strategized with Michael J. Fox, and has proved an inspiration to Dr. Sally Temple, winner of a MacArthur genius grant for her work as a neuroscientist.

But Sabrina's most satisfying moments come when she's called upon to provide hope to newly paralyzed people whose lives, like hers, have changed in a flash. "These are people who are going through their darkest days. They need to talk with someone who can give them hope. Not false hope, but realistic hope," she says.

Paralyzed at the age of 14, Sabrina knows about dark days. But she also knows about hope. And, for this, she's been honored many times. But she's never lost sight of her true goal, which is overcoming adversity and teaching others to do it too.

Sabrina is the founder and president of the Sabrina Cohen Foundation for Stem Cell Research. Thus far, she's raised $75,000 for scientific research, and she's just getting started. "I really feel like I am on a mission," says Sabrina, 34, whose Miami Beach non-profit organization is devoted to raising as much money as possible to fight Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, blindness, and stroke, among other dreaded diseases.

Her darkest days

For Sabrina, her life changed in an instant on Halloween in 1992, when the carefree teenager hopped into the backseat of a car with some friends. She thought she was getting a ride to a party, but the teenage driver started drag racing and the car slammed into a tree. The car was demolished and Sabrina's spine was shattered.

The accident not only left her legs paralyzed, but also cost Sabrina, a budding pianist, much of the use of her hands. She cannot grasp objects or hoist herself from her wheelchair to a bed or chair, abilities that enable many paralyzed people to lead fairly normal lives. Instead, the once lively teen was rendered completely dependent on others. She fell into deep despair.

"I was in the hospital for months. Still, I don't think I realized what had happened, so, the first time they put me in a wheelchair and took me to the cafeteria, and I saw six other people in wheelchairs, I started bawling," Cohen recalls. She cried for months. "My self-esteem was very low. I kept my head down. If I went to a mall, I wouldn't look at anyone. I thought everyone was staring at me," she recalls.

Despite her hospitalization, Sabrina graduated with her high school class. "When they called me up for my diploma, I looked at my classmates. Suddenly, I realized, life is going to go on with me or without me, so it's going to be with me. I was going to get on with living my life," she said. She was also given the Principal's Cup, the school's highest honor. On it was engraved, "For Courage in the Face of Adversity."

With that, Sabrina went into overdrive. She graduated from the University of Miami, earning a communications degree with a double major in advertising and psychology. She then took a leap of faith and opened her own ad agency. Admired for her creativity, her business was flourishing.

Overcoming Adversity

By now, Sabrina had grown resigned. "I'd been injured more than a decade before, and I'd spent so many years waiting for a cure, so this was no longer my focus," she recalls. But then, when she least expected it, came hope.

One day in 2004, her heartbroken father, who refuses to believe his only daughter may never walk again, insisted that Sabrina go hear a motivational speaker. That day changed Sabrina's life. It wasn't the motivational speaker who did it, though, it was stem cell advocate Bernard Siegel, a lawyer and the director of the Genetics Policy Institute.

"Bernie spoke for only two minutes, but our eyes locked and a light bulb went on in my head," recalls Sabrina. "He ignited in me a passion to help him find a cure. He not only gave me hope that I would someday walk again, but, through him, I also fell in love with the fact that stem cell research could help people with other diseases too," Cohen recalls.

Sabrina jumped aboard Siegel's organization as a volunteer. She spent two years soaking up everything she could learn about stem cells and how these master cells in our bodies can renew and regenerate injured tissue. She also learned about how to run a non-profit organization, and all about fundraising. In two years, Sabrina decided she had learned all she could at Siegel's side, and so, in 2006, she established her own foundation

Nowadays, she travels the country, speaking at scientific conferences at prestigious universities, including Harvard, Stanford, the Baylor College of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University and more. She has lobbied on Capitol Hill. And when she talks, she talks not in terms of a cure for herself, but of the hope that this treatment holds for others, in terms of curing not only paralysis, but also other diseases as well.

"Sabrina Cohen is one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. She is the proverbial optimist. With Sabrina, the glass is always filled to the brim. I think she is a creative genius," says Siegel.

Siegel adds, though, that it is Sabrina's intellect and her ability to learn about research and synthesize it that is most impressive. "Sabrina has been a participant and speaker at seven annual World Stem Cell Summits. She is universally esteemed by researchers and fellow advocates. Through her inspiring presence, she lifts the world."

Throughout the year, Cohen is a whirlwind of activity. She organizes fundraising events one after the other, which range from fun activities like happy hours, bowl-a-thons and casino nights, to serious medical seminars.

She designs and sells edgy T-shirts with slogans like "Free the Stem Cells" and "My Boobs Are Killer" (for breast cancer research). She recently garnered national publicity for the two "CELLebrity" calendars she created, including one that showed hunky male researchers wearing not lab coats, but shorts.

Since becoming involved with stem cell research, Sabrina has had many proud moments. Two of them occurred in 2009. First, her foundation awarded its first grant, giving $25,000 to California stem cell pioneer Hans Kierstead, M.D. "When I looked at the 150 people who were assembled in that room, it was the culmination of all the work I had done to create a community that supports this cause," she said.

And then, later that same year, WebMD the Magazine named her one of its four Health Heroes. "I feel that this helped give me credibility and recognition that I needed because I'm only a one-person show," says Sabrina. She runs the foundation from her apartment. She has no staff, just volunteers, so all the money she raises goes to the research grants.

In the six years since it was established, Sabrina's foundation has awarded a total of $75,000 in grants, the first to Dr. Kierstead, and then two more $25,000 grants; one to Dr. Joshua Hare, director of the University of Miami Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Research Institute, and, most recently, to Dr. Temple, scientific director of the New York Neural Stem Cell Institute.

For Dr. Temple, who recently received a $1.9 million grant from the NIH, Sabrina's award may not be the largest, but it is the most meaningful. "Sabrina gives researchers a reason to keep fighting, even when faced with daunting obstacles. She inspires us and shows us that our work is valued and needed," says Dr. Temple, adding, "We all love her!"

But Sabrina never forgets the fact that, when she was injured, it was the community of Miami Beach that gathered around her. She never turns down a speaking request. She has been given many awards. Among them, the Junior Women's Club of Miami named her a "Woman Who Makes a Difference," and the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce singled her out for her ability "to achieve success through innovation, commitment and growth to the community." City officials have proclaimed it "Sabrina Cohen Day" in Miami Beach not just once, but twice.

These days, Sabrina's mind is on even bigger projects. With her board, she recently redrafted the foundation's mission statement, which is now aimed at building a global network comprised of the world's best scientists. "We are committed to funding the most advanced research, the work that has the most potential to translate to real treatment for patients in the U.S. and beyond," she says.

And, speaking of herself, Sabrina remains hopeful. "For a long time, I thought, 'I'll be cured next year. Just one more year,' but it didn't happen, so I had to go on with my life. Nowadays, I don't think in terms of a cure for myself. I don't know if getting up and walking will ever be possible for me," she says.

But she is convinced that medical science is on the brink of finding discoveries that will help her, and others like her, enormously. As she puts it, "If I could just get back the full use of my hands, that would change my life."

More info: Sabrina Cohen Foundation for Stem Cell Research

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