Stillwater News Press

April 24, 2012

Challenges don't stop Oklahoma State graduate

CNHI News Service

STILLWATER, Okla. — An Oklahoma State grad is making progress in athletics and research and doing it all without the use of her hands and legs.

Cassie Mitchell, 30, became paralyzed shortly before she began attending Oklahoma State University in fall 2000.

“I had a severe allergic reaction or autoimmune response and it triggered a condition called Devics Neuromyelitis Optica,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said there were signs the night before her reaction.

“The night before it happened I kind of thought I wasn’t feeling well, like I might be catching a cold,” Mitchell said.

She took medicine and went to bed. The next morning, she made a horrible discovery.

“I woke up and I just couldn’t move my legs,” Mitchell said.

Over the next several years, she had reccurrences of Devics that has left her paralyzed from the chest down with impairments to her wrists, arms and hands since 2006. It has also affected her sight, causing her to have permanent double vision. However, during that time, she adapted to continue in athletics.

According to her website, Mitchell had been involved in events such as barrel racing, pole bending and goat tying as a teenager. She has four world championship event titles. She also participated in gymnastics and running. Despite severe asthma, she was a varsity track athlete at Warner High School, her website states. Off the track, she did well, too. She was valedictorian.

After being paralyzed, she had two choices in college — William Jewel, a private college in Missouri, or OSU, where she had a full academic scholarship. She spoke to an engineering representative at OSU and said she really liked the “family type” of environment that the campus had to offer. She chose to come to Stillwater.

“I never really felt like I was one in 20,000,” Mitchell said. “I always thought that they were there just for me, as if I was the only one, and treated me like family.”

While at OSU, she adapted to her challenges.

“I started in wheelchair athletics when I was at Oklahoma State,” Mitchell said.

She said she learned valuable skills.

“That was huge for me and not just from the stance that I had regained a part of myself but I was learning how to live in the chair from other people who had lived in the chair longer than I had,” Mitchell said.

She graduated from OSU with a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering in May 2004.

She made her way to graduate school at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University’s joint biomedical engineering doctorate program in Atlanta, according to her website. She continued competing in wheelchair basketball, even becoming an alternate on the USA Women’s wheelchair basketball team before another recurrence in January 2006 of her Devics forced her to quit.

She graduated with her doctoral degree in biomedical engineering in 2009. Her quest to compete in athletics has not slowed down.

“I am training for the Paralympics, which are in London 2012,” Mitchell said.

In 2010, Mitchell began to paracycle. In preparation for the upcoming games, she said, she completes 20 to 25 hours of training each week that includes weightlifting for strength and swimming.

“It takes a lot of effort and a lot of adaptation,” Mitchell said.

An engineered cycle allows her to compete.

“I have special grips that hold my hands on the bike so I can propel it,” Mitchell said. “I have adapted shifters that don’t require fingers to use. I have really short cranks for my tricep impairments.”

She said athletics helps her focus other than on herself.

“I did win two world championships last fall in cycling,” Mitchell said.

And back in the world of research, Mitchell is continuing to be a winner.

She is a part of the research faculty in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University. While she studies neurological diseases, her focus is on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

“The reason I chose ALS is because there’s no cure for it and it’s a disease people die three to five years after they are diagnosed,” Mitchell said.

She said there isn’t a lot of hope in that area and because a large group is not affected, drug companies don’t spend a lot of time or money addressing ALS. Her goal is to help those people.

Mitchell revisited her alma mater OSU to accept the Distinguished Engineering Achievement Award on April 13.

Whether in the research lab or on the track, Mitchell keeps a positive attitude about her work. She said bad things happen, but you move forward and you become stronger.

“To me, it is just the importance of never giving up,” Mitchell said.

For more information on Mitchell, visit