CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. (WIVB) — At 24 years old, Natalie Barnhard had her entire life planned out. The Buffalo native was working as a physical therapist assistant when one moment changed her life forever.

“I was at work one day and a 600-pound weight machine tipped over and fell on me,” Natalie said. “I fell back, shattered C5 and C6 vertebrae in my neck, which completely paralyzed me. I knew right away that I was paralyzed.”

Natalie was rushed into surgery at ECMC where doctors saved her life. She spent two months there before heading to Atlanta, Georgia, to continue her recovery at Shepherd Center — one of the top rehabilitation centers in the U.S. When it was time to go home, reality set in.

“I was now back in my own environment, trying to figure out how to live life in a wheelchair, and the dynamic shifted with all my friends and family,” Natalie said. “Everything that I had worked for was just gone, and now I have to figure out how to live paralyzed. I now had caregivers coming in to take care of me, to do every little thing for me. I had to try to verbalize every single thing I needed every single day.”

Natalie’s mother, Mary Lynn Barnhard, said the injury and the care that followed was a learning process that affected the entire family.

“It was a big transition because you don’t know what you need. You don’t know where you’re going to get it from, you don’t know what questions to ask, you don’t know who to ask,” Mary Lynn said. “It was a bit of a struggle but you trust God to get you through those times.”

Natalie (right) and her mother, Mary Lynn (left)

Natalie went from therapist to patient. She wanted to turn her injury into a blessing for others, so she started a chapter of the United Spinal Association in Buffalo to bring resources to Western New York — even advocating for the broader disability community on Capitol Hill to fight for basic needs.

“I wanted to provide finances and funding for people immediately for either rehab or equipment or something for their home,” Natalie said. “Just to change their life, to make their life more independent and easier.”

Relying on her faith, Natalie embarked on her next journey.

“I remember in the hospital just crying and talking to my mom like, ‘Why would God give me a gift to help people just to take it away?'” Natalie said. “Now I see it all these years later and like how God has literally put the pieces in my life for me to even get to this point where I’m at… I feel like He did choose me to do something so special and so important for our community.”

In 2008, Natalie formed what is now called the Motion Project Foundation. 13 years later, the Natalie Barnhard Center for Spinal Cord Rehabilitation and Recovery was born.

“I feel so blessed that I got to go to a specialized center and that’s why I want the specialized center here,” Natalie said. “Not only can we give people the rehab but we can give them peer mentorship. We can give them support, counseling. We can put them in adaptive sports, in team sports. We can give them just so much to help them go back to school, back to work, just live their life.”

Natalie’s center is described as a place for people to come to recover after a life-changing spinal cord injury through state-of-the-art equipment, exceptionally trained therapists, research, care navigation, advocacy and support.

“Not everyone can be fortunate enough to leave this area to get that specialized care but everyone deserves that specialized care,” Mary Lynn said. “That’s what the center is doing. It’s giving people that opportunity to get the care that they need.”

Natalie receives the Finn Bullers Advocate of the Year Award from the United Spinal Association (2021)

If someone experienced a catastrophic injury, Natalie wants them to know, no matter how much or little function they get back, they can still live and truly thrive.

“We all could be faced with a devastating injury or diagnosis. There are so many different things that can happen that could cause you to have some sort of mobility issue at some point in your life,” Natalie said. “I want to show people that you can do anything despite your injury. Just because we’re in a chair now, doesn’t mean that we’re limited.”

Though she will never walk again or have full use of her hands, Natalie isn’t bound to her chair. Day by day she forges ahead, living her life to the fullest.

“Having watched her live through this injury and how she’s persevered and the challenges that she faced and how she’s overcome them and never let them stop her, to me, that just makes her remarkable,” Mary Lynn said.

“At 24 years old, if you would have said like, ‘Natalie, someday you’re gonna be doing a recovery center and getting married,’ you know… It’s crazy,” Natalie said. “I know that it would have been easy to just give up. That would have been the easier road. But I’m happy. I’m really, really happy in my life and I never thought I’d be happy again.”

Natalie’s goal is to grow Motion Project into something above and beyond — a center of excellence for Western New York where people can travel to from all over.

“Yes, I am a clinician by background but we’re a family that started this. We’re a group of people that have lived this,” Natalie said. “This will bring awareness to, truly, the work that we are trying to do here for Western York and the people here.”

Tune into News 4 at 4 every Wednesday throughout the month of March to see a profile of one woman in Western New York who stands out. The winner of this year’s Remarkable Women campaign will be announced Wednesday, March 29.

Jordan Norkus is an award-winning anchor who has been part of the News 4 team since 2021. See more of her work here or follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.