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Overcoming adversity: How Chris Norton learned to walk again after a devastating football injury and how it applies to your farm | The Spokesman Speaks Podcast, Episode 29

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Welcome to Episode 29 of The Spokesman Speaks podcast.

This episode focuses on managing stress and overcoming adversity, topics that have become all-too-familiar in farm country. The episode features an interview with Chris Norton, a former Luther College football player who overcame a devastating spinal cord injury and inspired millions of people in the process. The episode also includes an interview with Dr. Larry Tranel, an Iowa State Extension dairy specialist, ordained minister and rural psychologist who offers practical tips for managing the stress that's mounting on farms around the country.

If you need free, confidential assistance dealing with stress (available 24/7), Dr. Tranel recommends the Iowa Concern Hotline, which is 1-800-447-1985. The Iowa Concern website is https://www.extension.iastate.edu/iowaconcern/.

Click here to view the transcript +
Narrator: Since 1934 Iowa's farmers have turned to the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman as their trusted news source. Now, The Spokesman Speaks. Listen in and hear from leading experts on topics important to farmers and agriculture. Now, here's your host, Laurie Johns.

Laurie Johns: Welcome to The Spokesman Speaks Podcast. This is our December 30th edition. I hope that each of you and your families had a Merry Christmas and I think we're all looking forward to a more favorable year in 2020. One with better weather and more agreeable markets. This week's episode focuses on managing stress and overcoming adversity, topics that have become all too familiar in farm country. Our first interview is with Dr. Larry Tranel, who's an Iowa State Extension dairy specialist, an ordained minister and a rural psychologist. He's going to cover some tips to help us manage the stress that we're all facing right now. And our second interview is with Chris Norton, a former Luther college football player who experienced a devastating spinal cord injury back in 2010. Now he serves as a national inspiration for those who are trying to overcome adversity of their own. We'll start with Dr. Larry Tranel, who presented in managing stress and communication at Iowa Farm Bureau's Annual Meeting earlier this month. Farm Bureau's Caitlyn Lamm caught up with Dr. Tranel after that presentation to unpack some of his takeaways for farm families. Let's listen into that conversation now.

Caitlyn Lamm: Larry, thank you so much for joining us. You know, we often hear adages like stress is part of life and as you pointed out, it can be healthy because it can push us to grow. But I kid you not just an hour ago I was talking to a farmer who was telling me he had some vision problems. He went to the doctor and they said that it was stress-related. And he wouldn't have imagined that that's what it was related to. So at what point does normal stress become something that's a little bit more serious and how can we kind of take like a mental checklist of those things to become more aware of when it becomes more serious?

Dr. Tranel: When we start taking a look as stress, yeah, being normal, it causes us to do some things, kind of move us off center to do something different to help us grow. When it starts affecting us physically to the point where so anytime you have stress, you're probably going to release some adrenaline, the types of hormones that are gonna help you deal with the stress. But when it gets to the point where it can start affecting like just our cognition of how we think about things, our ability to focus, it can immobilize us and just kinda hamper our decision making ability. And that's probably the first time I've heard it impaired somebody's vision, but it can definitely have physical effects like that just with nervousness, anxiety, vision issues, headaches, stomach ulcers and things like that. So it can actually permeate our bodies as well. And when it starts noticing on the physical level and even on the emotional level as well, that we realize that it's probably gone too far.

Caitlyn Lamm: So my husband and I are actually beginning farmers ourselves. And this was the first year that we have begun that farm transition. So it was, you know, one heck of a year to start farming. And there's a lot of things that you think about and stress about. You know, this year, especially the weather, delaying pretty much everything. Cashing in on a grain price that can help you pay off your operating note. We both have jobs off the farm, 40 hour week jobs and a little 18 month old at home. So there's all these sorts of stressors and when it seems like, you know, when it rains it pours, how do you on like mentally unpack, you know, where do you start when it seems like there's so many things coming at you?

Dr. Tranel: Okay. So the first thing I guess I would take a look at is that for each of us in our own lives is to look at, are we kind of inducing some of the stress where you're trying to do too much? Because we realize that our minds and our bodies can only handle so much. And so if we're in a phase where we feel we have to do this much financially or for other reasons, and I think we just have to reevaluate sometimes our goals and objectives in life and see if we can actually kind of scale back some of the things. But as you mentioned, working both jobs, farming, having a young child with that as well, when you start taking a look at when people are younger like that, you know, they tend to take on a lot of things and people just say you learn to deal with it and work with it. But I think as we are in that kind of a mindset of being so busy, and that's probably the hard part about American society, it's not just farmers but it's society in general. We're just, we're a very busy population that's just trying to do too much. And so how do we try to scale that back with priorities? But we also want to try to work with some mindset tactics that can help people deal with the stress and try to be more resilient about it. So if we can try to not just let everything just happen to us and we're just going to kind of handle whatever comes versus being very proactive about it and say, yeah, this stress is getting to me. I need to learn to relax a little bit. Maybe I'm losing my time to exercise or eat right and things like that, that we just need to kind of reevaluate things and bring them back to square one and make sure that we're taking care of ourselves and taking care of the stress as best we can.

Caitlyn Lamm: So I mentioned we have an 18-month year old and he's already tractor obsessed and like most farm families, we're really happy that we're going to be able to give him an experience growing up on a farm. But you mentioned, you know, stress in kids. So what types of things should parents look for and how can parents help their kids manage stress?

Dr. Tranel: Okay. The best thing that parents can do for their kids. So we mentioned a little bit about healthy marriages tend to lead to healthy parenting, which tend to lead to healthy kid development. So the best thing you can do for your kids is to have a loving relationship of husband and wife so that you can then model that behavior. So when you take a look at the kids, they're like sponges, they're gonna, you model the behavior and they're going to pick up whatever positive or negative behaviors that the parents tend to have or what siblings might actually have as well. So what's the best thing you can do for them is to be with them, talk to them, talk to them at their level. And I like to tend to say that sometimes the best time to talk to them is actually at bedtime, just before they go to sleep. Where if there's really some things you really wanted to think about or try to help them understand, if they're getting stressed out about some of the things that might be happening with the family as well. But just how do you really take that time to talk at their level? We're not always talking down to them as a taller person versus a shorter person, but they tend to be a little vulnerable when they're lying in bed ready to go to sleep where you can really, sometimes that's when the communication can open up the best.

Caitlyn Lamm: It's interesting, one of the questions this year that our young farmers have during discussion meet is about mental health in rural America. And during the practice rounds that I had sat in, many of them hold jobs off the farm but they still deal with farmers. So it might be someone who's a loan officer or someone who's a feed nutritionist and they all had mentioned taking some type of training to know warning signs about when a farmer might be dealing with more stress than they might usually take on. But then their question to themselves kind of was, well then what? Because we know that people can be private. We know sometimes it can be hard to talk about. But what if you are in that professional situation and you notice something is happening, how can you help that family without crossing personal boundaries?

Dr. Tranel: Okay. Very nice question cause I think there's a lot of people that are in these professional groups because farmers work with a lot of professional type people that are accountants, bankers, tax preparers and things like that, nutritionist. And so when we take a look at how do you deal with it? One thing I would really encourage is that we have these classes that actually come through Iowa State and some other places called mental health first aid. And it's a day long class where it actually helps people learn about how to identify the signs of stress and when that stress is getting to a level where they might need to say something to the person or actually try to get help for the person. And so that'd be the first thought process I would have with it. And then the second thing I would tend to say is when it deals with a person's wellbeing, take more risks than you think might even feel comfortable with, I guess would be the best way to put it is don't be afraid to say something to them. Try to get them to talk about the situation because I think one of the important things is that a lot of times people are actually helped better by a family member or friend, a pastor or somebody like that that they feel comfortable with and that they trust versus even going to a trained counselor. So you know a lot of communities that maybe you're that person that they want to come and talk to. But I would actually be pretty proactive about just even saying something to them and let them decide if they want to talk about it or not. And if they don't want to talk about it, then you can move on to some other topic of conversation.

Caitlyn Lamm: So if there is a family that's struggling to talk about these hard concepts or even if someone, you know, wanted to reach out to a professional, can you talk about the different resources that Iowa State University Extension has available to farmers in the ag community?

Dr. Tranel: Yeah, so the first thing I would say is that we have the extension hotline and that's probably the biggest thing I would say. So you've got somebody online 24 hours a day that if people find somebody where they themselves are under a lot of stress and just feel like they really need to talk to somebody right now is that that hotline is always available so there's always somebody to answer the phone call on that one. And so that person can also share other different types of resources that they think they can utilize. Whatever the situation is.

Laurie Johns: It's not an easy topic to discuss, but we certainly appreciate those tips from Dr. Tranel as well as the Iowa Concern Hotline that he referenced. Now again, that toll free 24/7 phone number is 1-800-447-1985 that's 1-800-4479-1985 or if you're more comfortable learning online or emailing someone about the assistance available through the Iowa Concern Service, you can go to Extension.IAState.edu/IowaConcern and we'll put that website in the episode notes as well so you can find and click on it from the podcast app you're using. These are tough times in agriculture, but if we lean on each other and draw inspiration from others who are overcoming adversity of their own, it can really make a big difference. And when it comes to overcoming adversity, there's no better example than Chris Norton, the former Luther College football player who suffered a devastating spinal cord injury on the field nine years ago. Chris was the keynote speaker at Iowa Farm Bureau's Annual Meeting and he brought out a lot of emotions from folks in that room. He had our members laughing and crying and we wish that you all could have been there because those in the audience really enjoyed his story about perseverance and finding blessings from unexpected places and people. We want to take this opportunity to share a bit of his moving story with you, our podcast listeners. Farm Bureau's Zach Bader met up with Chris at our annual meeting. You don't want to miss this.

Zach Bader: I'm here at Iowa Farm Bureau's Annual Meeting with Chris Norton who is delivering the keynote address for us this year. Chris, for those who don't know your story, let's just start from the beginning. Tell us about growing up, where you grew up and a little bit of that background.

Chris Norton: Yeah, so I grew up in central Iowa, the Bondurant Altoona area and I had great family, great morals and values. My grandpa was a farmer and I feel like from him and my parents they just really rooted in me just this belief in hard work and perseverance and just pushing through tough times. So I'm really grateful for that upbringing. And I'll never forget a moment when I had a horrible weekend in basketball. I was like probably 10 years old. And I'm on my way home. I'm crying, I'm mad. My dad was the coach, he's disappointed. I get home, I kicked my shoes off, I go to the couch and I start watching TV. I try to distract myself. And then my dad comes over and says, Chris, if you don't like where you're at, then do something about it. And it was just so obvious, but yet it's like those words clicked and there was something inside me that just said, why am I complaining? Why am I feeling sorry for myself when I can actually be doing something about the problem? I could be getting better. And so I got up off that couch and I started shooting basket and I shot baskets until the lights went out. And it was just that moment that kind of carried over into every part of my life where you know, you don't like where you're at, you're just going to do something about it. You just got to keep moving forward, keep taking action and just doing what you can each and every day. And so that's really helped me then get through my life altering event that happened in 2010 when I suffered a severe spinal cord injury.

Zach Bader: Tell us a little bit about how you got to Luther then. I'm really familiar with that part of the state up in Northeast Iowa, a beautiful part of the state. And how'd you get to Luther and then, yeah, let's talk a little bit about that event at Luther that just kinda turned your life upside down there.

Chris Norton: Well, I knew I wanted to play a college sport. I could have played basketball or football. There was a couple of other you know, smaller schools that wanted me to play for them and ultimately just visiting Luther and meeting from the players, the coaches. I just felt right at home. It was a beautiful part of the area and I just knew this was the place and so I was excited to be going to Luther and I quickly was able to start playing as a freshman more than the other freshmen. I was really excited. I was on top of the world. And then on October 16, 2010, six game into the season on the kickoff, just running down the field, I miss timed, my tackle and instead of getting my head in front of the ball carrier, my head collides right with his knees and I lose all feeling and movement from my neck down. And I was completely conscious, I'm awake and I'm trying to just get off the ground, but nothing is working. Soon it became apparent that something serious was happening.

Zach Bader: So your feelings in that moment, I'm sure it's, it's hard to describe, but you've had to do it, of course in front of a number of audiences. What's going through your head at that moment?

Chris Norton: Well, I had no idea what was really going on. As an 18-year-old kid, I was just thinking, you know, nothing bad is happening to me. Bad things happen to other people. I'll be fine. Everything's always worked out for me. And so this is gonna work out for me again. That's what history told me. And so I was just kind of waiting for my body to respond. And so I was patient. But obviously as time went on and they kept asking me questions about how I was feeling if I can move this or feel that and I couldn't, I was starting to get a little frustrated and just impatient. Like, okay, like, you know, I remember praying to like, God, if this is supposed to like scare me, I'm scared, you know, you know, just get back to the sideline and get back to my life. But whatever you do, don't change my plan. Like I love my life. And eventually, you know, they call him for a helicopter to fly me out and when I hear that radio call, that's when I felt like my world was starting to flip upside down. Like, okay, maybe this is something bad happening to me. Maybe I'm not invincible and immune to something awful happening. And just after that I closed my eyes and I tried to block it all out. I didn't want to like process what was happening and try to distract myself. And then the next thing I know I'm being flown out to Mayo Clinic. I have an emergency surgery, I had a severe spinal cord injury and then the next day the surgeon told me I had a 3% chance of ever regaining any feeling or movement back below my neck.

Zach Bader: When you got that news what's your reaction in the moment like that to hear your news like that from a doctor?

Chris Norton: It was surreal. I was trying to process it all because just the day before I was walking, I was suiting up for my college football game. Now I'm in the hospital lying there paralyzed with a 3% chance of ever moving. I just was in shock and it wasn't a 3% chance to walk. It was a 3% chance to move or feel to scratch an itch on your face to feed yourself. And then I start to feel numb and then angry. And I tell myself, no way, not me. I'm going to beat the odds. I'm not going to be part of that 97% who don't recover. I'm going to do whatever it takes to be that 3%. And so I just went to work. Trying to do something about it and just started nodding my head yes and no, nodded my head for hours. It was the only movement I can do. I looked like a giant bobblehead just bouncing my head around. But eventually I was able to shrug my left shoulder and I just kept having these little bits of progress and I kept just focusing on those, on that progress to try to encourage me and motivate me to keep going. Cause it was a slow process and it got really frustrating at times. But I just tried to do what I can, what I could each and every day.

Zach Bader: What motivated you of course, obviously your end goal there, but I mean obviously it's one thing to say that I'm going to do that. It's another thing to have the persistence and to have the mental strength and just willingness to stick with that and see that through all the way through. How did you attack that day after day? What mindset did you have that allowed you to do that?

Chris Norton: Yeah, I would say, first I had just my faith. I think it was really important just having that belief and that hope that things can be better and just the trust in the plan and the process and knowing that I had to do my part, I have to kind of plant the seeds in order for it to be harvested. And so I just knew each and every day I had to wake up and just win that day and do what I could control and let go of everything else I couldn't control. I think that a lot of times that can weigh you down thinking about the uncontrollables and so I just focused in on what I was able to do. And then I also had a great support system with family and friends that were all encouraged me and motivated me as well. And so it just allowed me to stay focused on the task at hand and I was so desperate, so motivated to not stay in the place I was at that I just gave it everything I got every single day.

Zach Bader: You've become an inspiration not just for people here in the state who know your story, but nationally as well. And so you've got, you know, the story of your graduation walking at your graduation and your wedding. Tell us a little bit about those experiences that brought this story of yours to a broader audience.

Chris Norton: Yeah. So I was able to slowly make some progress, get some movement in my legs. And then I returned to campus at Luther College and I set the goal. I want to walk across the stage at my college graduation. And it was a goal that I really worked hard at. I also made it public. I wanted people to take on their challenges and go for big goals like myself. And so I wanted to encourage and motivate people, but I had no idea that once I actually accomplished the graduation walk that that video would go viral. And I walked across the stage with my fiancée at the time and we're now married, but, seeing that video go viral we were just blown away. So many other people were just sharing their own stories of struggles. And because they watched this graduation walk, they were now inspired to go through their own challenges and overcome their own disabilities or fight through cancer or whatever struggles they were up against. They were now motivated to take it on. And that was really neat to see that how like my pain and how my struggles can motivate somebody else. And so with that in mind, we knew we had to walk down the aisle of our wedding and to do the same. Hopefully we can encourage someone out there to keep going, to not give up on themselves. And I think that's been one of the most important things with my story now that I'm over nine years in is that I just never gave up. I just kept taking one little baby step after another and just been persistent and I hope through my story that people become more persistent and they keep pushing through and have that perseverance. So then April 21of 2018, that's when I walked Emily then down the aisle. Seven yards, which was our goal. And that video then again went viral. It was in People Magazine, we went on Good Morning America and multiple other national shows that once again, it was really special to see this moment encourage so many people.

Zach Bader: Tell me about where your life is today. Where are you at and what are you doing?

Chris Norton: Yeah, so right now I live in South Florida, which is very nice and convenient for me. It's flat, it's warm. I don't have to wear layers on, I have to deal with snow or ice with my chair. But that's where my wife and I live. And then we have five daughters that we've adopted out of the foster care system, four are a sibling group. And then we've fostered 17 children in all. And we're going to continue to foster and we're going to just raise our girls. But we're really excited about where the future holds and just hopefully just raising kids with great morals and values. And, and then also we have a book that we just came out The Seven Longest Yards. We have a documentary that looks like it's going to come out this spring called Seven Yards. And then I'm just going to continue to do my motivational speaking and just do whatever I can to continue to inspire people. We have a foundation called the Chris Norton Foundation and we give specialized grants to rehab facilities. So we've given a lot of grants in Iowa to kind of boost the options and the opportunities for recovery. And then also we have a wheelchair camp that we started this past year and that was a bunch of fun. It's 25 kids and all their families come for free to do zip lining, horseback riding, archery. We did laser tag. We had a blast. It was an incredibly fulfilling and we're going to do another camp in 2020.

Zach Bader: As we've said before, your story's an inspiration to those who are dealing with adversity of their own. It's not the same kind of adversity that you've had to deal with, but it's adversity nonetheless for them. And you know, I'm sure coming here that farmers are dealing right now with adversity of their own, dealing with the markets that they have for the last few years. Dealing with the weather, dealing with trade wars, dealing with all kinds of things. Just a confluence of different things that are encroaching on them at this point. We have a lot of farmers who are here at the annual meeting. We have a lot of farmers who are back out in the country maybe listening to this podcast. Anything from your experience that you could share with them that maybe helps them get through their own adversity that they're dealing with right now?

Chris Norton: Yeah, I would say don't get too caught up with the future or fret about repeating the past. The only moment that you can truly make a difference in is this one. So just like managing this moment and figuring out what you can do about the problem right now cause I know for myself, especially in those early dark days when I got thinking about the future, it just weighed me down when I thought about the past. And what could have been, what I could've changed. It just weighed me down. But when I kept focused on the present and just being able to take action, it just kept me motivated, kept me focused on my progress. So I would just encourage everybody to just focus in on this moment, figure out what step you can take today and just focus on those controllables.

Laurie Johns: I know we all appreciate that dose of inspiration from Chris. I hope you enjoyed it too. Before we wrap up this episode of The Spokesman Speaks Podcast, I'd like to share one more thing with you. Iowa Farm Bureau is hosting a webinar with Dr. David Brown. He's a behavioral health specialist with ISU Extension. It'll be January 6th. So if you're looking for additional strategies to help you manage stress or tips for helping a friend or a loved one, I encourage you to tune in to that webinar. Again, it's January 6th and you can learn more about it iowafarmbureau.com. That's all for this episode of The Spokesman Speaks Podcast. Be sure to tune in for our next episode January 13th. Until next time. Thanks for reading The Spokesman. Thanks for all the great stories and the inspiration and thanks for listening to The Spokesman Speaks Podcast.

Narrator: Thank you for listening to The Spokesman Speaks, a podcast by Iowa Farm Bureau. Check out more podcasts and articles from The Spokesman at IowaFarmBureau.com/Spokesman. You can also find and subscribe to The Spokesman Speaks Podcast in the Apple Podcasts app, Google Play, and other popular podcast apps. We appreciate your ratings and reviews and welcome your feedback at Podcast@ifbf.org.


About The Spokesman Speaks Podcast

Since 1934,   The Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman has been Iowa’s leading agriculture news source, and today it is the largest circulation ag newspaper in Iowa. While the Spokesman newspaper is available exclusively to Iowa Farm Bureau members, The Spokesman Speaks podcast is available publicly, reaching farmers on-the-go with stories that matter to them. You can  find episodes of the podcast here or subscribe and listen in your favorite podcast app, such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, TuneInRadio, or Radio.com.

We release new podcast episodes every other Monday. Episode 30 will be released on January 13, 2020.



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