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Quadriplegic Ross Mason has an ambitious
plan to fix spinal cord injury treatment
Story by Van Jensen fast that the slight movement of the handle-
Photos by Kelvin Kuo bar threw it off course. The bike launched off
the trail and landed with the rider’s feet still
athematician Edward locked into the pedals, both sliding headfirst
Lorenz was preparing down a hill.
to run a computer The cyclist’s head collided with some-
weather prediction in thing large and hard enough to crack open
1961 when he took a his helmet. When he and the bike finally
shortcut. He entered .506 into the number came to rest, a piece of brush was pressed
sequence instead of the full .506127. against his throat. He could barely breathe.
That seemingly insignificant differ- By instinct, the rider’s brain commanded
ence completely changed the predicted his hands to push away the brush.
weather pattern. Lorenz’s finding helped His hands would not move.
establish chaos theory — the idea that
dynamic systems can be highly sensitive What Needs Fixing
to the smallest of influences. Ross Mason, IE 92, lives in an expansive
A talk by Lorenz famously was titled home in Atlanta. Off of a wide entrance hall is
“Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in his office.
Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” A broad desk is covered with papers but
On the evening of Aug. 2, 2007, a bee organized. The dark wooden walls are deco-
was flying along the Silver Comet Trail rated with portraits of leaders from the
near Atlanta. The bee came into the path American Revolution and Civil War.
The X-rays from Grady Memorial Hospital show
of a small but athletic man riding a bicy- Now 40, Mason enters, his motorized
the injuries that put Ross Mason in a wheelchair.
cle. It collided with his face, becoming stuck in his helmet. The rider wheelchair moving silently across the floor. His features have
raised a hand to brush away the bee. As he did, his elbow grazed rounded since his days as a world-class athlete, but he still has the
the handlebar. same smile and energy.
The man was a competitive cyclist, and the bike was moving so Gisele Umutesi, who works as his caregiver, walks in. She fled
July/August 2010 Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine 43
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the genocide in Rwanda and was granted A Life of Extremes estate market was booming. Seeing another
asylum in the United States before landing challenge, he started a real estate firm in the
Ross Mason grew up in Madison, Ga.,
in Mason’s employ. Umutesi asks about a city. Mason leased apartments from Russian
where his family owned a peach farm going
remote control to turn off the TV in another owners, renovated the properties and then
back several generations.
room. Mason starts to suggest places it rented them to Westerners who were staying
He followed his father, Robert, IM 60, to
might be before realizing it is sitting in his in the country for business.
Georgia Tech. Wanting to squeeze the most
lap. He can’t feel it. He operated the company for 12 years,
out of every experience, Ross Mason became
In one corner of the room stands an even after leaving Russia for Wharton in
as involved as a student can be. He worked
easel that props up a whiteboard. Scrawled 1994. Once, he got a call that a unit had been
a co-op student at IBM, started a company to
across the board is what looks like a family make energy-efficient lighting, served as a taken over by Russian mobsters and con-
tree. Names and ideas are organized into a dorm resident assistant, joined Alpha Tau verted to a brothel. The police suspected
hierarchy. At the top, enclosed in a rectangle, Omega, studied abroad, went on a mission Mason’s involvement and threatened to
is “HINRI Labs.” trip to Poland and, finally, was elected stu- have him arrested.
The Healthcare Institute for Neuro- dent government president. He finally had a friend with connections
Recovery and Innovation (www.hinri.com) On the recommendation of Dean Jim go to the mayor of Moscow, and authorities
is Mason’s nonprofit. The scattered notes all Dull, Mason was accepted to the Wharton forced the mob out of the apartment. “I got a
connected to HINRI form a road map, a path School. He deferred when a family friend degree in entrepreneurial management from
to fixing what has been broken. offered a challenging opportunity: a teaching the Russian school of hard knocks,” he says.
Mason isn’t obsessed with repairing his position in Siberia and chance to establish a After interning at Morgan Stanley while
spinal cord. Always one to seek out chal- student exchange program with the at Wharton, Mason helped the investment
lenges, he has taken it upon himself to repair University System of Georgia. firm open its Atlanta office once he received
the entire system of spinal cord injury treat- During his two years in Russia, Mason his MBA in 1997. He enjoyed the position,
ment and to make Georgia the center of a visited Moscow and learned that, in the but he missed the freedom of being an entre-
revolution in regenerative medicine. wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the real preneur.
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He left the firm in 1999 and Zealand Ironman, what was to be his
used his free time to travel with latest extreme challenge.
family to Zambia, where they
volunteered at an AIDS hospital. The Biggest Obstacle
“That experience really Mason was struggling to breathe.
changed my life,” he says. “It He again told his hands to move. They
was so transformative. The peo- wouldn’t. Neither would his legs.
ple in Africa have the most Finally, his lower arm responded
amazing perspective on life. I and pushed the branch away. He could
knew that health care was my breathe again, but he still couldn’t get
But first he flew straight to Some people hiking along the trail
the Canadian Arctic, where he found him and called for an ambu-
and some friends planned to be lance. When the emergency medical
the first sport divers in the frigid technicians arrived to take him to the
waters there. Mason laughs hospital, one asked if Mason under-
while recalling the dangerous stood how seriously he’d been injured.
adventures they had, including Mason said he did. The technician
losing a snowmobile through asked why Mason continued to smile.
broken ice and later diving to “I told him I’d put my life in God’s
retrieve it from the ocean floor. hands,” he says. “If it was my time to
The group, which later estab- go, it was my time to go. If not, God
lished the Arctic Kingdom must still have something else for me
adventure company, swam to do here.”
alongside polar bears, whales It wasn’t his time.
and walruses. At Grady Memorial Hospital,
It was just the latest adven- Sanjay Gupta was Mason’s surgeon.
ture in a life full of pushing Gupta, the CNN medical correspon-
toward extremes. Mason had dent, stabilized Mason’s smashed ver-
been rock climbing, spelunking and surfing He helped the Free Clinic Network raise tebrae.
around the world. He was a NASCAR-certi- $600,000 in six months, which allowed vol- Slowly some movement returned to
fied driver and once bungee jumped off of unteers to care for more than 250,000 home- Mason’s arms as he went through recovery
Victoria Falls. less, indigent and uninsured Georgians. That and then rehabilitation in the following
After leaving the Arctic, Mason moved care saved the state about $400 million in months at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta.
to California for five years and helped start a 2009, according to the state auditor. Among his visitors in the hospital was Newt
health care Internet software company. He “Georgia has a wonderful advantage in Gingrich.
saw how the state invested in fledgling health care, but we haven’t focused as a But more challenges awaited Mason. He
enterprises and future technologies, which state,” Mason says, referring to Georgia’s learned that he’d suffered a complete break
led to the growth of Silicon Valley. highly rated research institutions and hospi- of his spinal cord. He’d never walk again. A
His next stop was in Germany, where he tals. “Counties are competing against each month passed before he could sit up without
served as an adviser to the Volkswagen other to promote local hospitals. There is a losing consciousness.
health care venture accelerator fund. The focus on collaborative investment in He needed to have his bladder drained
fund invested 280 million Euros in 90 com- California that we don’t have here.” every few hours by the nurses. But one day
panies, including 30 early-stage health care On Aug. 2, 2007, Mason met for lunch his bladder filled more quickly than normal,
businesses. with several fellow entrepreneurs. They and a nurse at first refused to insert a
“I wanted to develop a health care early- talked about a company started out of catheter despite Mason’s spiking blood pres-
stage investment model in Georgia,” he said. research from Harvard and MIT that uses sure.
With a loose plan in mind of working as nanotech polymer implants to restore spinal “It felt like I had a spit running through
a health care entrepreneur in his home state, cord function in injured patients. Mason and my body, and I was being roasted over a
Mason returned to Atlanta. He became a fel- the others wanted to recruit the company to fire,” Mason says. “That was the most help-
low at Newt Gingrich’s Center for Health Georgia. less feeling. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t push
Transformation, vice chair of the state’s Mason left the meeting and seven hours a button. You’re completely dependent on
department of community health board and later started a bicycle ride along the Silver someone else, and if they’re negligent,
chair of the Georgia Free Clinic Network. Comet Trail. He was training for the New you’re going to pay the price the rest of your
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Some of my dearest friends just went away
because they couldn’t handle it.
life. I was a 38-year-old man, and I just manent paralysis isn’t the injury itself but In August 2009, Georgia Sen. Johnny
wanted to go to the bathroom.” the inflammation that follows. He met with Isakson and Mason hosted a meeting with
Finally, the nurse drained Mason’s blad- leading researchers from China, where sur- the state’s health care, business and philan-
der, which by then was four times fuller geons routinely cut open the spinal cord to thropic leaders to discuss opportunities to
than it should have been. Mason says he relieve inflammation. There, about half of become a player in the industry, particularly
could’ve easily gone into dysreflexic shock those with complete spinal cord injuries the nexus of engineering, computer science
and suffered brain damage. walk again. In the United States, where sur- and biology.
While Mason says the support of his geons operate around the spinal cord to In the meeting, Mason pointed out that
family and friends was crucial for him mak- secure the vertebrae, only 1 percent of other states were investing millions or even
ing it through that difficult time, his injury patients with complete injuries walk again. billions in bioengineering research and
was too difficult for some of them to deal Patients in China also receive a standard health care technologies. By contrast,
with. of six hours of therapy a day for six days a Georgia announced it was committing only
“Some of my dearest friends just went week, no matter how serious the injury. In $400,000 to become a “global center of med-
away because they couldn’t handle it,” he the United States, insurance will pay for ical innovation.” Mason needed to find
says. “They don’t want to be around me. rehab only for those who have “incomplete” another way to fund his dream.
I’ve had that happen with a number of peo- injuries — in which patients retain some Earlier in 2009, the Department of
ple I’ve known all of my life.” function or sensation below the break. But Veterans Affairs created the Veterans
One of the biggest challenges that arose even those patients receive only three to five Innovation Center to provide funding for
was cost. The expense of his treatment began hours of treatment per week. research that could improve the lives of
to mount. Mason’s insurance company “That’s unacceptable,” Mason says. injured veterans. And it was looking for a
didn’t want to pay for his care and claimed home.
his injury was a pre-existing condition. Overcoming Challenges “Why shouldn’t that be in Georgia?”
“If your insurance company can success- One day during rehab, a nurse handed Mason asks. “A partnership with the mili-
fully fight you for two years, they can defer Mason a pencil and asked him to write the tary could make the state an international
payment until you go on Medicaid,” he says. alphabet. leader in restorative medicine.”
“Most patients with a spinal cord injury end “I asked if I’d get a diaper as a reward,” Quickly, the lines in Mason’s road map
up having to pay for rehab out of pocket.” he recalls his sarcastic response. “Why not came together. Augusta is home to Fort
Mason also tried alternative treatment tell me to write a letter to a wounded sol- Gordon and the Charlie Norwood VA
methods such as interactive manual therapy, dier? That would serve a purpose. That Medical Center. The city has the nation’s
but those cost thousands of dollars a week. would motivate me to write again.” largest warrior transition battalion, burn cen-
The expense of spinal cord injury treat- Mason had the military on his mind. ter and active duty spinal cord injury popu-
ment is taxing the health care system, He’d been working on his plan to fix spinal lation. Atlanta has a VA medical center, top
according to a 2009 report from the injury treatment, and he wanted to establish hospitals and Georgia Tech and Emory,
Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. Georgia as the center of spinal cord research. which operate the joint Wallace H. Coulter
Spinal cord injury treatment alone costs And he’d discovered that a partnership with Department of Biomedical Engineering. The
$40.5 billion per year in the United States. the U.S. military was key. department is ranked in the top three in the
Nearly 5.6 million Americans live with Mason had met with Gingrich and lead- nation for graduate and undergraduate bio-
some form of paralysis, the report states. ing researchers. He testified before Congress engineering programs.
About 1.3 million are living with spinal cord in March 2009 regarding the congressionally Hundreds of other little details were
injuries. directed medical research program’s first gathered into the plan, with Mason always
Mason began to do more research dur- allocation for spinal cord injury research. But seeing more opportunities and more prob-
ing the following two years of recovery and one problem kept arising: “bringing money lems to fix. He wants to recruit the
learned that one of the main causes of per- to Georgia.” Morehouse School of Medicine into the
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Georgia Research Alliance, create a statewide new technologies. Right now it’s a totally dis- wield such great influence, the logic
collaboration on clinical trials and fix technol- connected system with everyone operating in extends that people’s actions become mean-
ogy transfer, among others. silos and not communicating.” ingless next to the whims of an anarchic
He launched the nonprofit HINRI Labs But on his whiteboard, everything con- world.
earlier this year to serve as the center of this nects. It is a completed circuit, each part com- But the butterfly effect simply means
effort, a single connection point for all of the municating and partnering toward a single that, in certain systems, the fluttering of a
disparate groups, agencies and individuals goal: repairing broken spinal cords. butterfly’s wings could have a substantial
involved. Mason hopes to partner the non- The first step for making the map a reali- impact. That butterfly isn’t a random factor
profit with the Veterans Innovation Center to ty is recruiting the Veterans Innovation but part of the system. The fluttering of its
bring funding to researchers and then to spin Center. Currently its leaders are deciding wings is a minuscule but necessary piece of
off for-profit businesses from that research. between establishing the center in Georgia or the larger plan.
Mason talks quickly, constantly gesturing Illinois. To bring the center to Georgia, Mason believes in something larger, that
with his hands and directing his wheelchair Mason has been raising a needed $3 million, his injury was necessary to help the lives of
back and forth across the floor. The intensity with less than $1 million to go. others.
of his days as an extreme athlete and serial He’s planning fundraisers to make sure “An injury like mine is a divine gift and
entrepreneur haven’t faded. He’s just learned he’ll meet that objective. It’s just one more a sacred trust,” Mason says. “I’m honored
new ways to channel it. hurdle he’s determined to overcome. that God would trust me with a situation like
“We’ll take intellectual property and this.”
commercialize it,” he says. “We can drive col- Taking Flight He believes that greatness can grow from
laboration between PhD researchers, clini- There is a common misperception about little things, like the fluttering of a butterfly
cians, patients and companies with exciting chaos theory. Because such small things can or the flight of a bee.
July/August 2010 Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine 47