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U of U Alumnus Who Achieved Remarkable Success after Spinal Cord Injury, Craig H. Neilsen, Honors U with Presidential Endowed Chair

Craig H Nelson

Sept. 16, 2013 – Craig H. Neilsen exemplified the extraordinary success and quality of life one can achieve after experiencing a life-changing spinal cord injury (SCI).

When a 1985 car accident left him paralyzed from the neck down, the University of Utah alumnus would not let this twist of fate hold him back. After returning to work at his family’s construction and real estate development business a year later, he went on to establish a thriving casino enterprise, Ameristar Casinos Inc., and eventually set up the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, dedicated to helping people with an SCI lead active, high quality lives and to promoting research to find a cure for paralysis.

Neilsen died unexpectedly in 2006, but his good works and desire to help others live through his foundation, which has given generously to the University and other institutions that provide rehabilitation, outreach programs and conduct SCI research. Now, to honor Neilsen for his tireless efforts on behalf of others and to help the University continue its work for SCI patients, the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation has donated $1.5 million to establish a presidential endowed chair at the University of Utah: The Craig H. Neilsen Presidential Endowed Chair for Spinal Cord Injury Medicine in the Division of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at the University of Utah.

The University’s rehabilitation programs and research are an ideal fit with Neilsen’s desire to improve the lives of people with SCI, according to his son, Ray Neilsen, chairman and co-trustee of the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation.

“My father knew how devastating a high-level spinal cord injury can be,” says Neilsen, who now dedicates his time to the foundation and its mission. “More importantly, he knew that SCI couldn’t prevent him from achieving what he wanted to or from leading a fulfilling life – and he wished the same for others living with a spinal cord injury. He would be thrilled that this presidential endowed chair has been established at his alma mater to help continue the work to empower people with an SCI to achieve the highest possible quality of life.”

The purpose of the new presidential endowed chair is to promote education, research and innovation in care and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injuries. To accomplish that, the Division of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation must attract and retain the best physicians with expertise in spinal cord injury. A presidential chair will enable the holder to establish innovative programs and conduct research to enhance the quality of life for those with an SCI. The Craig H. Neilsen Presidential Endowed Chair for Spinal Cord Injury Medicine in the Division of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at the University of Utah will be the 80th presidential endowed chair at the U Health Sciences.

“It is with tremendous gratitude that we accept this generous award, and it is an honor to have the Craig H. Neilsen Presidential Endowed Chair for Spinal Cord Injury Medicine at the University of Utah,” says U President David W. Pershing. “The Neilsen Foundation’s deep commitment to improve lives through spinal cord injury research and rehabilitation nationwide is commendable. This gift will support the U’s highly regarded programs that facilitate greater understanding of these life-altering injuries and promote successful rehabilitation. We are proud of our innovative programs and excellent medical faculty and students who produce exemplary patient outcomes. The award of the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation Endowed Chair for Spinal Cord Injury will aid in the University’s efforts to serve the region.”

The National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSPISC) estimates that 12,000 people receive and survive an SCI each year in the United States and that approximately 273,000 people currently live with an SCI in this country. The costs of treating SCI are staggering, depending on the severity of the injury and the age at which it is incurred. For example, the lifetime health care and living expenses for a 25-year-old with a total loss of ability to move the arms, legs and torso exceed $4.6 million, according to the NSPISC.

Partnerships between academic health care, rehabilitation and research facilities and organizations such as the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation are important for making discoveries that help people with many types of diseases or medical conditions, says Dr. Vivian S. Lee, U senior vice president for health sciences, dean of the School of Medicine, and CEO of University of Utah Health Care. “When personal experience meets philanthropic spirit, the impact is tremendous for both donor and recipient. It takes a special chemistry.  Donations such as this generous $1.5 million for a presidential chair in Mr. Neilsen’s honor provide important funding that helps us continue our work on the devastating condition of SCI and bring special meaning to patients’ lives as well as to ours,” she says. “We are proud to work with the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation on our shared goal of improving the lives of those with an SCI.”

The Neilsen Foundation has donated more than $3.1 million to the University for the U of U Center for Disability Services, University of Utah Health Care Rehabilitation Center, U researchers studying areas related to the spinal cord and paralysis and to the School of Medicine for the presidential endowed chair.

One of the foundation’s earliest and most influential donations occurred at the University of Utah Rehabilitation Center in 2005, when a $100,000 gift helped to start the Therapeutic Recreation and Independent Lifestyles Program (TRAILS), fundamentally changing the expectations for and commitment to patients with SCI after acute rehabilitation.

TRAILS takes the powerful and successful multidisciplinary approach to patient care that normally occurs within a rehabilitation hospital back into the community to solve the health, education, financial, and social issues affecting individuals with SCI after they return home. By providing daily opportunities with adaptive recreation, education forums, wellness initiatives, and access to essential adaptive equipment, TRAILS removes both the real and perceived barriers to maximizing quality of life.

Jeffrey Rosenbluth, M.D., associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, SCI medical director, and founder of TRAILS believes that “the Neilsen Foundation had a strong, early understanding that their funding for TRAILS was going to help solve problems, not just start programs. Eliminating excuses for non-participation in a healthy and active lifestyle finds TRAILS deeply involved in patient advocacy, community partnerships and education, new product development, and creating sustainable as well as innovative program models. The Neilsen Foundation has been a powerful force for change in the SCI community, and I look forward to having them as a partner in meeting the long-term challenges of health care.”

University of Utah Health Care’s Rehabilitation Center houses 37 beds and works with about 800 inpatients a year at University of Utah Hospital, according to Dr. Richard W. Kendall, associate professor and chief of the physical medicine and rehabilitation division. He estimates that 25 percent, or approximately 200, of the patients treated have an SCI. “This wonderful gift to honor Craig Neilsen represents the division’s commitment, and particularly Dr. Rosenbluth’s, to furthering the quality of life for the SCI community,” Kendall says. “It will enhance the programs we have in place.”

Craig H. Neilsen was born in Logan, Utah, and raised in Twin Falls, Idaho. After graduating from Utah State University, he received both his master’s of business administration and law degrees from the University in the 1960s. He went to work for his father’s construction and real estate development company, Neilsen and Miller. Unfortunately, his father died unexpectedly only a year after Craig started working with him. He then started his own company in construction and real estate, Neilsen & Company, which became the largest construction company in southern Idaho. He also managed his family’s one-third interest in Cactus Petes, Inc., which owned two small casinos near the Idaho/Nevada border in the town of Jackpot, Nev., south of Twin Falls.

Driving from Jackpot to Twin Falls in November 1985, his car rolled over, leaving him with a high-level SCI. After being treated at the University of Utah Hospital, Craig went to Phoenix for rehabilitation. Following that, he returned to work and began a remarkable ascent in business, building Las Vegas-based Ameristar Casinos, Inc., into a premier gaming company with properties in Missouri, Iowa, Mississippi, Colorado, and Nevada.

For more information on the life of Craig H. Neilsen and his foundation, click here.