HOUSTON If you think of art as an expression of the beauty inside an artist s soul, you will understand why Jared Dunten s creations are so special. He s an artist on a mission to help raise money for the first human clinical trial for stem cell therapy.

In April 2000, while on a camping trip in Big Bend National Park, Dunten dove into the Rio Grande River with a bar of soap to clean himself off and hit a sandbar. He woke up in an intensive care unit in Lubbock, paralyzed from the neck down and breathing with the help of a ventilator. The impact had broken his neck at the C4 and C5 vertebrae and injured his spinal cord.

His close friend and hiking companion, Marty Butler, pulled him out of the river and saved his life.

In the hospital in Lubbock, I was fighting pneumonia and an ulcer (bedsore) I developed while in the ICU, Dunten said. Some said I would never breathe on my own or even speak again. But after about a month and a half, I began to recover.

Flown by air ambulance to Memorial Hermann for rehabilitation, he fought his way off the ventilator and after another month and a half, began breathing on his own.

It was touch and go for me as far as therapy goes, he said. The ulcer was very bad and took a long time to heal.

Once Jared could sit comfortably, his team worked to find the wheelchair that was best for him, along with a cushion to help with circulation and prevent skin breakdown.

In 2002, encouraged by his mother, Dunten began to paint using his mouth. In 2004, he was awarded a student membership in the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, a worldwide organization of artists that organizes exhibitions, sells original artworks and arranges for publishing houses to reproduce their works as art greeting cards and calendars.

Five of Dunten s paintings are on display at Memorial Hermann in Houston, where the spinal cord injury unit is located. His photograph and biography is also displayed on the first floor, along with several other inspiring patient stories.

One of the reasons I started painting was to create a platform to let people know that paralysis doesn t have to be permanent, Dunten said. We will find a cure sooner, rather than later. For me, it s not a question of if, but when. I m going to paint myself out of this wheelchair.

To support his mission to one day walk again, Dunten and several friends founded Will Walk, a foundation that works with the Lone Star Paralysis Foundation and other organizations to raise funds for the first U.S. human clinical trial of adult stem-cell therapy for spinal cord injury patients. The protocol for the trial is currently in FDA review, and if researchers at University Medical Center Brackenridge in Austin win approval, 30 individuals paralyzed by spinal cord injury will be enrolled in the trial in 2010.

Click here for more info on Will Walk.

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