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Dr. Jack Kessler in his Streeterville lab
The surgeon called Dr. Jack Kessler IN the early evening of January 2, 2001. Kessler’s 15-year-old daughter, Allison, had sailed over a ski jump in Connecticut and landed on her back.
As chair of neurology at Northwestern University, Kessler had seen dozens of cases just like this one; he knew which questions to ask and which answers to fear. The doctor told him that Allison had crushed her spinal cord, paralyzing her legs so that she might never walk again. “It hurt like a dagger,” Kessler recalls. “And it never went away.”
Immediately after hanging up the phone, Kessler and his wife, Marilyn, raced to catch the last flight from Chicago to Connecticut, where Allison attended prep school. Sitting on the plane close to midnight, Kessler wondered what, if anything, he could do. For the past 24 years, he’d been researching the neurological complications of diabetes. Now he vowed that once things settled down—if things settled down—he would retrain himself to work on treatments for spinal cord injuries using embryonic stem cells, the controversial research that many scientists believe will allow better treatment of diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.
Since then, Kessler, now 60, and a team of devoted graduate students have been attempting to regenerate nerve cells in spinal tissue. He has also become an activist, testifying at congressional hearings about the divisive issue of stem cell research, speaking at universities, and offering private lectures. Now the collision of Kessler’s personal and professional lives has inspired a new documentary, Terra Incognita, which premières January 15th on PBS.
Photograph: Anna Knott