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By Daniel J. Vance

In early June 2006, something unbelievable happened: Patrick Rummerfield began a 155-mile footrace across the Gobi Desert in China. This was unbelievable—no, inconceivable—considering Rummerfield for many years was paralyzed from the neck down, unable to use his arms and legs. He is perhaps the world's first fully recovered quadriplegic.

I interviewed him just days before his departure for China.

“I was injured in a high-speed car accident in northern Idaho in 1974 at age 21,” said Rummerfield, age 52, over the telephone from Baltimore, where he works as a Kennedy Krieger Institute spokesperson for the world's first facility dedicated to child spinal cord injury and paralysis. “We hit the ditch doing 135 mph while I was a passenger in my own Corvette after my bachelor's party. I was paralyzed from the neck down and given 72 hours to live.”

Airlifted to Spokane, Washington, he went on to a rehabilitation center in California, where he would learn to operate an electric wheelchair using mouth controls. Soon thereafter he began an intensive rehabilitation program, which included using an electric stationary bike and, in time, electric stimulation therapy.

After making substantial progress on his own, in 1997 Rummerfield found Dr. John McDonald, who later would become lead neurologist for actor Christopher Reeve. “Dr. McDonald (now with Kennedy Krieger Institute) then started working with me,” he said. “We began doing different types of activity-based exercises, such as cycling on an electrical stimulation bike. It's functional electrical stimulation that puts electrodes on different muscle groups, such as the quadriceps and hamstrings.”

His full recovery from quadriplegia has been miraculous. Despite the fact that 85 percent of his spinal cord is “dead and gone,” he said, he now has run across sections of the Gobi Desert in 120-degree heat to raise funds for Kennedy Krieger Institute. Also, he has finished the Los Angeles Marathon and Antarctica Marathon. And he enjoys race car driving.

He added, “I yet don't have any sensation from the knees down, but can still use them. I have to watch my feet when walking or hiking, or else I'll fall down.”

He claimed that Kennedy Krieger currently has “a lot” of quadriplegics making great strides under Dr. John McDonald's groundbreaking care. “I may be the first quadriplegic to walk,” he said. “But I definitely don't want to be the last.”

For more, see danieljvance.com or www.spinalcordrecovery.org [This column made possible by a grant from Blue Valley Sod, www.bluevalleysod.com]