RALEIGH – Karen Thor was on the cusp of retirement. Then her son, Michael, co-owner of Raleigh’s popular Whiskey Kitchen, became paralyzed from the neck down in a 2015 motorcycle crash.

The former banking exec uprooted her life to support him through rehab at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, one of the country’s top hospitals for spinal cord injuries — for nearly three years.

But eventually, she wanted to return to home.

With no paralysis recovery centers in Raleigh, she says she was left with only one option: to start her own.

“We were never going to get to come back if there was nothing to come back to,” Karen, 64, recalls. “He would have regressed.”

Brandon Lawrence getting rehab at NextStep Raleigh with Kayleigh Dolphin and Nick Foster.

She had heard of a chain of small rehab centers starting to pop up across the country called NextStep, and called the founder in Los Angeles.

“I just said if I put pedal to the metal how long would it take to open one of these up? He was optimistic. He said about six months.”

In the end, it took nine. Using her own savings – around $300,000 — she opened the doors a little more than a year ago to NextStep Raleigh on Hillsborough Street.

The 3,200-square-foot community-based rehabilitation gym serves people in the Triangle living with paralysis including stroke, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, amputation, cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injury.

Today, the center has around 20 clients – and counting.

“We get people come as far away as West Virginia. There’s a guy coming for Christmas break from college from Virginia because there’s nothing,” she says.

‘Lifting lives to new heights’

The center houses specialized paralysis recovery equipment, including functional electrical stimulation and neuromuscular electrical stimulation equipment.

It is currently holding a fundraising campaign to purchase a specialized gait trainer that runs around $24,000.

Karen is also up to speed with the latest technological advances.

When she heard about a Massachusetts-based medical robotics startup, Myomo, that manufactured a powered brace to help restore function to arms and hands, she immediately got them to come in.

Michael Thor (center) with his wife Sarah Santoro (left) and mother Karen Thor (right).

Whiskey Kitchen co-owner Michael Thor gets a cast of his arm made for his custom-made robotic arm. Also pictured is his wife, Sarah Santoro, and Myomo representatives Heather Ward and Thomas Schratwieser.

This week, her son, Michael, 37, was fitted for the robotic arm, the MyoPro.

Around seven other clients have also been assessed and are now waiting for approval from insurance.

Among them is Robert Williams, 25, who became quadriplegic in a car accident a year ago.

With recovery centers few and far between, he travels fours hours round trip to work out at the center once a week: “It means a lot because I’m trying to get back to my normal self.”

Adds Karen: “My hope for all these guys is that they get as much function back as possible.”

Michael Thor says he’s proud of his mother’s work.

“For each one of them, it’s making an enormous difference in their lives. To see people out of power chairs and into manual wheelchairs, it’s inspiring and humbling.”

Whiskey Kitchen co-owner gets fitted with robotic arm 4 years after paralyzing motorcycle accident