Paralyzed U of M student uses video gaming technology featured in Super Bowl ad

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A University of Minnesota student with a bright future is adapting to his new life after he was nearly killed biking home from class.

It’s a journey made easier and more enjoyable by advanced technology recently spotlighted in a popular television commercial.

Robert Cook is a young man on a mission. He is a student leader at the U of M with a giant personality who has places to go and people to help.

Cook is the face of a Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence video and is studying kinesiology with goals that include becoming a physical therapist someday.

“It was very daunting,” Cook said. “It was a life-altering situation.”

At the moment, however, Cook is focused on his own therapy and healing.

“I’m working towards regaining as much as I can and living my best life,” Cook added.

Last July, Cook was nearly killed. The 21-year-old was riding his bike home from class when he was struck by an SUV near campus. His helmet is the only reason he is alive today.

“He had tubes everywhere,” Aleichia Rowe, his mother said. “Couldn’t even recognize him.”

“I could never imagine my son like that. I just lost it,” Rowe added. “I broke down. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t talk. I could just cry. It was just horrible.”

Doctors told Cook’s mother he’d be lucky to survive emergency surgery to stabilize his shattered spinal cord.

“It was touch and go for the first week because of his lungs,” Rowe said.

“The next thing I know, I’m waking up a week later in the middle of the night,” Cook said. “I’m like, I can’t move anything. I am thinking it’s a nightmare. I can’t move my head, can’t talk, can’t move my body.”

Sadly, it wasn’t a dream. Cook was paralyzed below his neck and he’s had to adjust to his new normal.

Most recently, Cook has adjusted by getting the chance to play his cherished video games for the first time since the accident.

“They said I wasn’t supposed to breathe on my own again. I wasn’t supposed to eat on my own again. Not able to talk like this,” Cook said. “I conquered all these odds.”

Instead of using his once lightning-quick hands, Cook’s mouth and chin now maneuver the on-screen characters with various patterns of sips and puffs on what’s called the quadstick.

“It takes a while to find the right buttons for different games,” Cook said. “So it’s always nice to play a game fully through.”

It’s advanced technology the team at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute brought in specifically for Cook to master for future patients.

“It makes my day,” he said. “Waking up (saying), ‘Yes, I get to play games again. Get to do something fun.’”

“It’s not easy to do,” said Drew Redepenning, of Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute. “Cook is very persistent. He’s got a great attitude. He is really open about technology. It’s why he has gotten so good at this.”

“When I got into my accident, I thought that was over for me,” Cook said. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to play video games again until I got my hands moving again.”

Cook is now crushing Kingdom Hearts and regularly playing chess against online opponents.

“Gaming is very therapeutic, I think,” said Redepenning.

This category of adaptive technology received a giant boost this month in a popular Microsoft TV ad that aired prominently during the Super Bowl.

Like the young people featured in the commercial, Cook feels normal getting lost in a digital adventure.

“I could play games for hours on end before the accident,” Cook said.

It’s that same technology paired with a voice-activated software that provides Cook enhanced computer skills that will allow him to return to school work and, eventually, graduation.

“Courage Kenny’s mission is really making lives work and so it’s taking an individual and helping them get back to full participation in their life,” said Brian Leloup, of Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute.

“It’s all looking up from here,” said Cook. “It’s a long, long road with these spinal cord injuries, but it’s the little victories that matter.”

Coincidentally, as part of his undergraduate physical therapy work, Cook actually shadowed Courage Kenny therapists before his injury.

While he’s comfortable taking their advice and guidance to heal and regain mobility for now, Cook is committed to getting back there as a member of the professional staff someday, where he hopes to continue to take advantage of the incredible evolving technology.