On Feb. 18, 1978, Donnie McKnew, then a senior at St. Albans High School, was driving home to Chevy Chase after dropping off a date, when his car skidded on a patch of ice near Massachusetts Avenue and 46th Street NW and struck a tree.

The accident left him paralyzed from the chest down, with limited arm and head movement. And it left his mother, Louise McKnew, frustrated over the lack of a facility in the Washington area that could provide acute and rehabilitative care for victims of central nervous system injuries. Such an institution might have helped prevent her son's paralysis, she said.

Washington may soon have such a facility, however.

The $45 million, 160-bed National Rehabilitation Hospital, scheduled to be built on the grounds of the Washington Hospital Center by 1985, will include a spinal-cord injury unit.

Ed Eckenhoff, president of the future hospital, said about a quarter of the hospital's beds and 600-member staff will serve spinal cord injury patients.

The spinal cord injury unit "is long overdue," Louise McKnew said. "There should not be a major city without one," she said. "It should have been done 10 years ago."

After his accident, Donnie McKnew received initial acute care at Sibley Memorial Hospital but was transferred to Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore after 12 days, he said, because it was better equipped.

He began his rehabilitation at Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore, then transferred to Rusk Institute in New York. Louise McKnew said her son's bill for the first six months of treatment was $250,000.

Most spinal cord injury victims in the Washington area receive acute care at medical teaching centers--the hospitals of George Washington, Howard or Georgetown universities or at Greater Southeast Community Hospital.

Eckenhoff said no local medical center offers extensive, comprehensive rehabilitative care for the severely disabled. The NRH will be one of nearly 70 rehabilitation medical centers nationally that are part of larger acute-care systems.

Spinal-cord injuries paralyze 20,000 Americans a year and have claimed half a million lives. They cost the government and insurance companies about $3 billion annually, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Association. Most victims are youngsters, often teen-age males injured in motor vehicle or sports-related accidents.

Currently, more emphasis is placed on caring for paralyzed patients than on immediate treatment that could prevent permanent paralysis, Louise McKnew said. "For every one dollar spent on cure, $400 is spent on care. It's a very passive attitude."

McKnew quit her job with the U.S. Information Agency six months after her son's injury to become director of the spinal injury association's national office, at 18th and H streets NW. The administrative headquarters is in Boston.

"I was lost for assistance when Donnie was first injured. I knew of nowhere to go," she said. "It's critical for youngsters when they get injured to have family, community and friends' support. It is an incredible waste of a natural resource. These young people can be helped and be very productive in our society."

The national office houses the District of Columbia chapter, one of 41 association chapters in the country, and offers advice on prompt, specialized care and is trying to discover ways to prevent and cure chronic paralysis.

"The first couple of hours after the injury can write the prognosis," McKnew said. "The biggest problem is ignorance by the public and neglect of people who are paralyzed. People are sent home to a scared and ignorant family. Also, after the first couple months, the help from friends stops. There is an awesome fear in that."

She said paralysis victims can receive financial aid from Social Security, vocational rehabilitation centers and local health agencies. "But nobody offers the assistance to you," she said. "You have to go and get it. Far too many are rotting at home or stashed away at a nursing home."

The District chapter recently helped organize a cross-country run from Santa Monica, Calif., to Annapolis to raise money for spinal cord research.

Donnie McKnew, 23, a senior history major at Yale University, has worked in recent years as an intern on Capitol Hill and as a research assistant at the National Institutes of Health.

He says it is "inevitable" that a cure for spinal cord injuries will be found. "They've found our muscles and bones and pulmonary system is still intact." But when the cure will be found, he said, "is something nobody can predict."