This Unser is steering a new course as `guinea pig'

On Motor Sports

October 17, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Not often these days do you have the opportunity to meet a pioneer. Yesterday was such a day.

Cody Unser, the 12-year-old daughter of Shelley Unser and CART driver Al Unser Jr., spun her wheelchair into the garden outside the Johns Hopkins Hospital Outpatient Center and was ready to begin interviews and medical tests.

"I've volunteered myself as a guinea pig," said Cody, smiling.

Last February, her body was attacked by transverse myelitis (TM), an unusual neurological syndrome caused by inflammation of the spinal cord.

The illness affects from one to five individuals per million every year. Its causes are unknown, and the disease can strike at any age. Of those who get it, about one-third recover fully in the first three months, another third have partial recovery and another third no recovery.

The disease caused Cody to suffer a spinal cord injury, destroying nerves and leaving her with paralysis, bladder problems and numbness in her legs. Cody can now walk with a brace for an hour a day.

While her dad has been in Australia, preparing for today's Honda Gold Coast Indy race in Queensland, Cody and her mom came to Hopkins. Here she is undergoing tests that may determine what caused TM to strike her and to make sure that she is not at risk of worsening.

Cody has long blond hair and hazel eyes. When she arrived Wednesday, she blasted into Hopkins like a whirlwind, doing wheelies in her wheelchair as she played a self-created game with the large revolving doors.

"She's not the daredevil of the family," said Shelley. "But no way her older brother would not let her be cool. He taught her the wheelchair moves, and when her dad was home, with his broken ankle, she beat him in their races."

This girl, who measures about 4 feet 10 (though she likes to say "5 feet") and weighs just 67 pounds, has established her own nonprofit organization. The Cody Unser First Step Foundation is aimed at raising research funds and awareness of transverse myelitis and spinal cord injury.

The first $60,000 of the fund came from Winston Cup driver Bobby Labonte, who sent her the money "to do whatever you want with," after he raced in place of her dad in the IROC race at Daytona Beach, Fla., when Al Jr. left to be with Cody upon receiving word of her illness.

"It was my idea to start the foundation," said Cody. "I'd been in the hospital and gotten all kinds of gifts and presents from friends and strangers, and I'd look across the hall and see a baby with nothing. So I gave them mine. Then Bobby Labonte sent the money. I'd say that was generous, and I decided we could use it to help find a cure."

And then Cody wrote a thank-you note to Labonte and asked him to be her honorary chairman. He agreed. Now she's working on her board of directors, and her targets are ambitious: CART car owner Roger Penske, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George and vice president of operations for Mercedes-Benz USA Hal Whiteford.

When Cody's dad gets back from Australia, he too, will be roped into the project as a fund raiser through a dinner or a benefit party at a race.

"Cody inspires me," said Shelley Unser. "When she thought up the idea for a foundation, I asked her why, and she said: `I'm not going to just sit here and do nothing. And, you don't understand, it's helping me, Mom. It helps me feel better.' And I know, it keeps her mind occupied. This really is pioneer type stuff."

Cody also is inspiring others. She has told her doctors to tell her the truth, even the harsh truth, and is backed up by her mother.

"When she first meets them, she tells them up front, `You lie to me and you're history.' If they try to sugarcoat it, she's onto them in an instant. And that's her dad in her. He reads people really well, and so does she. You don't get a choice around her."

Cody came to Baltimore because Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions has the only transverse myelitis center in the country.

Dr. Doug Kerr, who heads the center along with fellow neurologist Dr. David Irani, said he is learning from Cody, too. She has insisted that doctors share information, leading him to arrange exchange visits with Dr. Barth Green of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the University of Miami. Hopkins also is having Richard Gilmur of the Transverse Myelitis Association put together an international symposium in two years.

"Cody has basically forced me to speak to them and them to us," said Kerr. "I think Cody is way beyond her years and has the potential to influence research in years to come.

"What she wants is what everyone wants -- a lot of people thinking about this disease and finding answers."

Anyone wishing to contribute to the Cody Unser First Step Foundation can send donations to the foundation at 6847 Rio Grande, Albuquerque, N.M. 87107, or, for information, call 505-890-0086. The association's Gilmur also offers a Web site: www.myelitis.org.

Nuts and bolts

As expected, Ray Evernham, who resigned last month after directing Jeff Gordon to three championships in seven seasons, will be the point man for Dodge in its return to Winston Cup racing in 2001 after 16 seasons on the sidelines.

Baltimore's Larry Kopp, the defending Pro Stock Truck Champion who won five national events last season, advanced to his first final this season at the 11th annual Advance Auto Parts NHRA Nationals in Topeka. He finished runner-up to Californian Bob Panella Jr.

The IRL championship will be decided today among six drivers at the Lone Star 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Series leader Greg Ray (255 points) and defending champ Kenny Brack (242) have the best chances.

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