Southlake teen who overcame spinal tumor launches 5K walk

Because of nerve damage to her right leg, Tori Roberts cannot ride a bike or run. To drive, she needs a device that lets her accelerate with her left foot.

But the problem has not stopped the 17-year-old Southlake girl from organizing the Simple Steps 5K walk on Saturday in Keller. The goal is to raise awareness and money for spinal cord research and rehabilitation.

Roberts, who had a spinal cord tumor when she was 3, has tried to never let her damaged leg become an obstacle.

"I can do the same things everyone else does," she said. "I just do them a little differently."

It's that optimistic approach that has helped Roberts throughout her life.

As a toddler, she had balance problems and stomach pain, but doctors could not find the source until an MRI revealed a large tumor on her spinal cord. They did not know whether it was benign or malignant, or how it would affect her life, said Tracy Roberts, Tori's mother. It turned out to be benign, but there were more hurdles ahead. Doctors predicted that she had a 50-50 chance of being paralyzed.

During months of therapy, she had to learn to walk all over again. Then in 2004, she underwent a second surgery to correct a curvature in her spine. Two titanium rods, 12 screws and two hooks later, she was back to living life at full speed.

Although the nerve damage affected her balance, she still swam on the Carroll Senior High School swim team, played volleyball and even went rock climbing.

She also started walking in 5K fundraisers with her dad. For the father-daughter duo, walking for Cystic Fibrosis, Special Olympics and about a dozen other charities became a bonding experience. They would walk, go eat ice cream and chat.

During one of those talks, Roberts told her dad that she wanted to do her own walk to raise money and awareness for spinal cord injuries.

"I want to find a cure for nerve damage," she said. "Unless they find a cure, someone with this is never 100 percent."

About 260,000 people in the United States have a spinal cord injury, according to the Foundation for Spinal Cord Injury Prevention, Care and Cure. An estimated 12,000 new cases occur each year.

Roberts contacted area hospitals that provide services for people with spinal cord injuries.

She chose the Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation because it provides intensive therapy for people ages 15 and older. She also chose Cook Children's Medical Center, where she was treated as a child. The funds raised at the 5K will be used to support spinal cord research there.

"Tori is a perfect example of how one person can make a difference," said Gary Cole, vice president of Development for Cook Children's Health Foundation. "We appreciate all that Tori went through to get to this point in her recovery and then to want to help Cook Children's; it's very special."

For Roberts, now a senior in high school, organizing the event turned out to be far more challenging than she ever imagined. She did everything from designing a logo to collecting donations for the auction.

Relatives and friends helped, but much of the work fell on Roberts' shoulders.

"If I wasn't as passionate about this as I am, I would have given up," she said.

Jan Jarvis, 817-390-7664