This artistic rendering shows the Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital, which is set to be completed in spring 2020.

The University of Utah recently broke ground to replace the 52-year-old rehabilitation center with a state rehabilitation hospital. The new facility will house 75 beds and is slated to be one of the most advanced rehabilitation centers in the United States.

This project is being funded by the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, which donated $47.5 million dollars to the hospital. Neilsen operated businesses in many sectors, including in real estate and construction, until 1985, when he was paralyzed in a car accident from the neck down. Many thought the accident would mark the end of his productive life, but Neilsen continued to progress in his career. Neilsen soon assumed control of Ameristar Casinos Inc. — his father’s company.

With this financial success, Neilsen created the foundation in 2002, who’s mission is, according to his website, to “support both programs and scientific research to improve the quality of life for those affected by and living with spinal cord injury.”

Today, the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation is one of the largest private donors to spinal cord injury research.

“My dad wanted to make a difference,” said Ray Neilsen, Craig H. Neilsen’s son and Chairman of the Board of Directors for the foundation. “He knew the challenges of living with spinal cord injury.”

Neilsen has a special relationship with the U, having received care as a patient in the rehabilitation hospital, as well as two degrees from the university — an MBA in 1964 and a law degree in 1967. Through his foundation, he previously donated scholarship money to students with spinal cord injuries. Now, the foundation wants to do more.

“As someone who spent five months in the early days of the rest of their life as a completely paralyzed person, I can’t tell you how important is to have a good attitude,” said Brian Mckenna, a patient with a spinal cord injury, in a video released by U of U Health. “The environment, the facilities, the feeling of the place you live, where you spend every single day — it’s crucial. I can’t wait to be inside this [new] building and to see how much better the experience will be for those new people who are unfortunate enough to be in this situation. I think it’s going to be a huge improvement for the patient experience.”

The new rehabilitation center’s rooms will be designed for optimal comfort by therapists, rehabilitation physicians and former patients. The center will have double the capacity of the older model. The expanded rehabilitation center will have a patient-focus on physical rehabilitation, and be a center for innovation and well-being in order to help those in Neilsen’s shoes. The center will bring together experts from a wide range of backgrounds, including exercise, rehabilitation, engineering and design to create the best possible environment for recovering patients. The center will include two indoor gyms, an outdoor terrace and garden plots. The building will be in the middle of the health sciences campus and connect to the hospital.

The new center is expected to be completed in spring 2020.

@jacqmumford

j.mumford@dailyutahchronicle.com

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