I Was 24 & Had Just Scored My Dream Job In Fashion. Then An Accident In The Hamptons Changed Everything.
After becoming paralyzed in his early 20s, Francesco Clark, the founder of Clark's Botanicals, used self-care and skin care to build a new life.
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By the time I was 24, I was living a life that felt like a dream. I was pursuing a career in the fashion industry, and had worked at both Condé Nast and Harper's Bazaar. I was assisting John Waters at photoshoots. I was meeting Marc Jacobs and Karl Lagerfeld. In 2002, I got promoted to a top PR firm. To celebrate over Memorial Day weekend, I went to a summer-share house owned by friends of friends in the Hamptons.
My first night there, I decided I wanted to take a swim. For some reason, the metal ladder that’s usually in the deep end of the pool was in the shallow end. So I dove in, thinking it was the deep end, and my chin hit the bottom of the pool with so much force that it snapped my head back and shattered my C3 and C4 vertebrae. I was paralyzed in the blink of an eye.
I could feel this electric pain, like two rods hitting each other, exactly where I broke my spine. I was helicoptered over to Stony Brook Hospital and the surgeon said I had a 19% chance of surviving not only that night, but the next two years of my life. He said, 'You're never going to be able to speak, breathe on your own, or move your arms.' I was completely awake, but my left lung was collapsing so it took a lot of energy to talk.
The next day, I woke up from an 18-hour surgery. The vertebrae broke in such a way that they turned into these sharp shards of bone that were like glass cutting through my spine. There were hundreds of them. They inserted a titanium rod and two titanium plates and screws where my vertebrae shattered.
I woke up from surgery and my mom and my dad were by my side. The doctor came back and told my father, who is also a doctor, the same prognosis that he had said to me: I wouldn’t be able to do anything for the rest of my life. Had I listened to the doctor, I would have just stayed in bed and given up.
In that moment, my mom whispered in my ear in Italian, 'Just move something.' I twitched my shoulders a little bit. She looked up at the doctor and said, 'You don’t know our son.' It was the first moment since I dived into the pool where I thought, I’m going to push forward. I had this incredible foundation of family and love.
In the years that followed, I moved back into the house where I grew up in Bronxville, New York. My parents set up a hospital bed in my family's former living room, where I learned to play the piano. The first two to three years of recovery were devastating.
I didn’t leave the house for three years other than just going to rehab. Despite having worked in fashion, I wore the same hospital pants and T-shirt every day. I shaved my head bald every week. I didn't look in a mirror for three years. If I was in a room with a lot of windows and I could see my reflection, all I’d notice was the wheelchair and I’d burst into tears. I wanted to disappear. I valued my independence and energy and felt like everything that I worked to become had suddenly been taken away. I was 24 years old and all my friends were getting engaged, getting promoted, buying houses, and I felt like my life was on pause.
Then, two years into my recovery, I heard on the radio as I was going into physical therapy that Christopher Reeve had passed away. I realized that I had been relying so much on this Superman, who was also paralyzed from the neck down after an accident, to be my advocate to fight for a cure for paralysis.
That day, I looked in the mirror for the first time in years. I could not ignore it. I realized that you have to become your biggest advocate even when you don't feel like it. I accepted the fact that I was dealing with depression and PTSD and my new life in a wheelchair. If I didn’t acknowledge that, how was I going to grow? I needed to do something that made me feel like I could still be an independent person. That’s what led me into skin care.
One of the side effects of my injury, other than not being able to feel or move 99% of my body, was that my skin stopped reacting to temperature. I will only sweat if I'm in a lot of pain. Because my skin stopped sweating, it looked 10 years older than it was. It was dry and flaky and oily and red, and even dull and grey in certain areas. I had acne at the drop of a hat, and nothing worked. I tried $300 creams, $3 creams, prescriptions. Even the baby products I sampled would make my skin break out in hives.
My father and I relied on his medical background to start making serums and creams at home. Not to sell, but because nothing that I bought was working. It was trial-and-error of finding one ingredient that worked and mixing it with another to make it stronger. After a lot of research, we found that jasmine absolute, which became a catalyst for all the other ingredients that we use, was the only thing that reacted positively with my skin.
In 2010, my former Harper's Bazaar editor-in-chief Glenda Bailey called me to the Hearst offices to meet with her. I didn’t have an aide, so my sister Charlotte drove me. Glenda said, 'Francesco, you look the same, it just looks like you’re sitting.' Charlotte said, 'Well, he’s not just sitting; he’s always mixing this stuff with our father.' Then she took out one of the ugly glass vials of what is now our Smoothing Marine Cream, and Glenda was like, 'Well, if you’re using it then I'm gonna put it on.'
She put it on her face and I was mortified. It wasn’t packaged. It wasn't sold in a store. It was just part of my emotional and psychological recovery. Three weeks later, I got a call from Glenda's assistant and she said, 'Glenda's shooting it for the September issue. Whether you like it or not, it's gonna be in there.' I was then instructed to find retailers and a factory. Just like that, Clark's Botanicals was born.
The support of Clark’s Botanicals happened quickly. We were sold not only through our website, but soon through Amazon, Dermstore, and QVC. I’ll never forget when we sold out for the first time on our site, and the number of phone calls and emails we started getting from customers, who were like, What am I going to do now that I don’t have this product? Ironically, the beauty industry and the fashion industry, which many perceive as being incredibly shallow or narrow-minded, were the most accepting and supportive industries. They have huge hearts. They’re very generous and they’re willing to take a risk.
One thing that always gave me hope were my former colleagues in fashion. Everybody would send me all of these encouraging handwritten notes every day, and to get them from such well-known celebrities like Gisele Bündchen and Jennifer Lopez would put a smile on my face in-between learning how to navigate my new world.
My disability definitely informed our products, and even how we package them. For me, it’s about keeping it accessible. A jar with a big lid is easier to open for me. For the Ultra Rich Lip Balm, there were a lot of discussions about it going into a little pot. And I was like, I’m sorry, but how am I going to open the pot, dip my hand in the jar, and then put it on my lips? Using pumps is easier, especially when you need assistance. You can say to your aide, 'Two pumps or one pump.'
But ultimately, using the product line to give back to organizations, like the Christopher Reeve Foundation, really allowed me to tie together my former life in fashion, my injury, and my new life in beauty. A portion of the proceeds from every one of our sales goes to the foundation. That’s important to me. If it wasn’t for the impetus of Christopher Reeve, I would never have emailed the foundation, for which I'm now an ambassador. Being a part of the cure gave me a voice when I thought I'd never be able to speak again.
Because of skin care, I’ve been able to acknowledge my complete sense of self, inside and out. When I started using the products, I felt like I looked good. I was suddenly like, I want to go out. It became this domino effect that empowered me and made me feel fearless.
Today, I’m moving my wrists and arms and I’m starting to wiggle my fingers. All of that is from doing eight hours of physical therapy a day. What I’ve learned in these years of recovery is that it takes constant 1% improvements to get to where I am today. I launched a successful brand from a hospital bed. Step by step, skin care helped me build this new life.
Edited by Kelly Dawson, a disability advocate who was born with cerebral palsy and has a master's degree in media communications.