search feedback link archive home

Parathyroid hormone may help battle osteoporosis

Doctors control spread of antibiotic-resistant bug

Healthier cattle feed benefits animals and people

Younger than 55? Alcohol risks outweigh benefits

Women have poorer body image than men

Finding disease genes may not be so difficult

Drug users need regular medical, drug abuse care

Study links child's depression with later obesity

RAND: US faces healthcare 'quality deficit'

Exercise keeps women's minds in shape




October 18, 2000
Quadriplegic and Back
Pat Rummerfield propelled himself from tragedy to triathlon
By Nima Zarrabi

illustration: personal photo

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," he says.

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."

Related link:

Outside link: Pat Rummerfield's site