Pat Rummerfield propelled himself from
tragedy to triathlon
By Nima Zarrabi
September 20, 1974: Pat Rummerfield and best friend Kevin
Berg were out celebrating their respective engagements to
high school sweethearts. Both men were heavily intoxicated
as they sped along Interstate 90 at 135 mph in a 1963 split-window
Corvette, one and a half miles west of Kellog, Idaho.
As the car drifted across the highway, Berg at the wheel,
21-year-old Rummerfield sucked down a bottle of wine in the
passenger seat. Soon enough, the 'Vette hit a ditch, which
caused the car to turn over, and over again. Berg walked away
from the accident with nothing but a chipped tooth; his friend,
however, ended up lying in the back of the twisted sports
car, unable to move and gurgling blood with every breath.
Pat Rummerfield had broken four of the seven vertebrae in
his neck -- C-3, C-4, C-5, and C-6 -- in addition to all of
his ribs. He also shattered his clavicle and popped an eyeball
out of its socket. It would take 150 stitches to put his face
and scalp back together.
At the hospital, a team of orthopedic neurosurgeons told
Rummerfield he was paralyzed from the neck down -- a quadriplegic.
Doctors informed his father that Rummerfield had only three
days to live. When his father delivered the bleak news in
tears, Rummerfield asked doctors to place his X ray on the
wall above his bed.
"I used to look up at it and pray, 'Dear God, if you'll just
give me a second chance to walk, I'll do whatever I can to
help those who aren't as fortunate,'" Rummerfield says.
Remarkably, seven days passed and Rummerfield remained alive.
There was another meeting with his team of doctors; they told
Rummerfield they couldn't believe he had beaten the odds.
They assured him that he would live, but said that he would
remain a quadriplegic for the rest of his life.
One day at a time
Rummerfield soon convinced his father to send him to the
Sharp Rehabilitation Center, in San Diego, a rehabilitation
facility that could help him learn to use his mouth to control
an electric wheelchair. Prior to the accident, Rummerfield
was a 6-foot, 205-pound former basketball player who worked
in a lead mine and dreamed of racing cars someday. A month
after the accident, Rummerfield was a 126-pound quadriplegic
-- one of the estimated 183,000 to 230,000 Americans living
with a trauma-related spinal cord injury. Approximately 41
percent of these injuries are caused by motor vehicle accidents.
"It was very frustrating for me to learn how to use the quad-chair
with my mouth, and it was a relatively new contraption," Rummerfield
recalls. "And one day after training, the nurses put me back
to bed and I was laying there concentrating, thinking about
racing cars and playing basketball ... and I felt my left
big toe move. And that was just the beginning."
During the next six months, Rummerfield regained movement
in other parts of his body: his feet, legs, and arms. He continued
to get better each day and eventually checked himself out
of the Sharp Center. During the next three years, through
constant therapy and extraordinary determination, Rummerfield
regained the use of his hands and even began to walk.
"I still couldn't go very far," he says. "If I were to walk
50 yards, I'd have to lay down for a nap."
Over the next 17 years, Rummerfield continued his rigorous
therapy, finally mastering running and riding a bicycle. His
daily successes overshadowed the many dark moments that he
experienced during the rehabilitation process.
"I'd be a liar if I said there weren't any down times," Rummerfield
recalls. "Depression is kind of the big challenge for all
of us, even able-bodied people, to get over. There were times
when I had some serious bouts of depression, times when I
didn't want to keep on doing the therapy or the exercises.
But through the help of many close friends, I overcame that."
Although he can now run and ride a bike, Rummerfield still
has problems with balance. He has regained 75 percent of his
normal ability, but some effects of the accident linger. "I
don't know where my feet and legs are unless I see them,"
But of course, that has not slowed him down either. In 1992,
Rummerfield competed in the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii, completing
a 4.2-mile swim, a 110-mile bicycle ride, and a 26.2-mile
run. In 1997, he ran in the Antarctica Marathon; he was one
of only 82 people in the world to do so. And this past March,
Rummerfield finished the Los Angeles Marathon in nine hours
and 30 minutes.
"The L.A. Marathon proved how far I can push myself," Rummerfield
says. "It enables me to do more."
Man or miracle?
As Rummerfield's neurologist and the director of the spinal
cord injury program at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, in St. Louis,
Missouri, John McDonald, M.D., uses Rummerfield's MRI as an
example of what is possible, despite severe injury to the
spinal cord. Spinal cord injuries do not need to be cured,
just partially repaired, says Dr. McDonald. Only about 10
percent of functional connections across the lesion are required
to allow walking.
"It's a miracle that he lived, given his multiple traumatic
injuries and the high mortality that used to be associated
with cervical spinal cord injuries in the 1970s," says Dr.
McDonald. "His remarkable recovery is way out of the norm,
but varying degrees of recovery occur with most spinal cord
injuries and there are factors that may help account for Pat's
tremendous improvement." Recent evidence supports a theory
that when there are two separate injuries in different locations
of the nervous system (in this case, head and spine), one
helps stimulate regeneration of cells in the other area.
Dr. McDonald also cites Rummerfield's dedication to exercise
and rehabilitation as an important factor in his recovery.
"Recent studies have demonstrated that early training of the
injured nervous system may enhance recovery and that exercise
can actually induce production of new nerve cells," he points
out. "Also, there are other unknown contributing factors,
and Pat's recovery shows not only that there is hope for people
with spinal cord injuries, but that extra effort pays off."
To those who claim he was misdiagnosed at the time of the
accident, Rummerfield counters that his recovery was a miracle.
Dr. McDonald agrees that Rummerfield's case has an "unexplained
outcome," especially considering that Rummerfield had an extremely
severe spinal cord injury, with about 75 percent of his spinal
cord functioning lost. "People have been trying to find a
way to explain this for quite some time," Rummerfield says.
"It's simple: I've been blessed. Why me? I have no idea. "
In October of 1999, 46-year-old Rummerfield raced the streamliner
White Lightning -- a super-fast, aerodynamic electric
car sponsored by Graybar Electric and owned by Ed Dempsey
of Santa Ana, California. He set a world land-speed record
of 245 mph in this event at Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats.
Asked if he fears moving at such a speed, Rummerfield shakes
his head and says, "No."
Today, Rummerfield lives in St. Louis, where his rehabilitative
training is ongoing. He coordinates studies in the injury
prevention center at Washington University School of Medicine,
and is active in drunk-driving prevention programs. He started
a foundation for paralysis research, NextSteps, for which
he raises money by running in triathlons and by continuing
his race-car training for the American Le Mans Series.
This month, Rummerfield will be recognized at the eleventh
annual Arete awards in Chicago, an event honoring inspirational
athletes who have overcome tremendous obstacles in pursuit
of their goals. Rummerfield will be honored as amateur athlete
of the year. Prior to donning his tuxedo for this event, however,
Rummerfield will attempt to break his own land-speed record
in Bonneville on the same day -- all as part of a promise
he made in that hospital bed, 26 years ago.
"That promise is what drives me every day," Rummerfield says.
"I want people to know there is hope. No matter how dark it
may look, never give up on your dreams."
Outside link: Pat