Cover Story

Medical Marvel

Doctors can't explain why Pat Rummerfield is able to run marathons and race cars. Even so, there are scores of quadriplegics who long to follow in his footsteps.

In 1974, Pat Rummerfield was paralyzed in a car accident. After 17 years of therapy, he regained his ability to walk. Today, Pat serves as a role model and research subject at Baltimore's Kennedy Krieger Institue, where other quadriplegics and paraplegics are undergoing intensive experimental therapies.Video by: Nancy DonaldsonPhotos Courtesy of Pat RummerfieldMedical Marvel
By Tom Dunkel
Sunday, January 27, 2008

WITH LITTLE FANFARE, Pat Rummerfield strides through the outpatient clinic at Kennedy Krieger Institute's International Center for Spinal Cord Injury in Baltimore. He's a non-physician making his rounds, checking on the quadriplegics and paraplegics who find inspiration in his every step.

He ducks into a side room where Robby Beckman is immersed in a tank of chest-high water. At the bottom of the tank is a wide rubber belt that scrolls like a treadmill. Thanks to the buoyant properties of the Hydro Track, Beckman can practice ambulating on his own. Keep those heels down. Don't drag the toes on that right foot. It's tough going, like wading through melted caramel.

Beckman broke his neck in an Ocean City diving accident during the summer of 2003. In an instant, he became a quadriplegic. Catapulted into a wheelchair at age 19, he was told that's where he'd forever remain. Yet here he is on a March morning almost four years later walking in water, which for him seems almost as remarkable as dancing upon it.

Rummerfield, a senior staff member at the spinal cord center, watches Beckman struggle to keep his legs moving. To take Beckman's mind off his aching muscles, Rummerfield asks about a ski trip Beckman recently took with a group of disabled athletes.

"Any crashes?"

"I just fell on my face a lot," says Beckman, who sat on a monoski to whiz down the mountain. "It was awesome! Being on the edge of out-of-control."

In a place where people move mostly in slow motion, the conversation turns to speed. "Mr. Pat, I bet there's nothing like the adrenaline of being behind the wheel and going 200 miles an hour!" Beckman exclaims. He knows that Rummerfield has competed in a few minor NASCAR races and holds a world speed record set in 1999 on the Bonneville Salt Flats: 245.5 mph clocked in an electric car. Those accomplishments only hint at what his presence in this room means to Beckman, who, in private, calls Rummerfield "more or less the person I want to be."

Rummerfield, 54, is himself a quadriplegic, injured in a high-speed car crash decades ago. You would never guess that without reading his medical chart. Even then, you wouldn't know he has run marathons and completed triathlons in addition to his auto racing exploits. Along the way, Rummerfield has overcome five knee operations, broken legs and fractured ankles. He doesn't walk with a limp, never uses a cane and is modest of both build and demeanor. In short, the most ordinary of extraordinary men.

Rummerfield often is described as the world's most fully functioning quadriplegic, meaning he copes with severe loss of function in his arms and legs. (Paraplegics, as a rule, are affected only from the chest down.) "He's missing two-thirds of his spinal column," notes John McDonald, director of Kennedy Krieger's spinal center. "If you lined up 10 people's MRIs that look identical to Pat's, nine would be in wheelchairs."

By any reasonable definition, Rummerfield qualifies as a medical miracle. That poses some beguiling questions. Is he a lone Lazarus, or can his comeback be replicated on a grand scale? Contrary to conventional wisdom, are spinal cord injuries curable?

McDonald believes they are. He's the neurologist who the late actor Christopher Reeve believed would help him conquer his paralysis. He's a very vocal proponent of the notion that repetitive exercise -- so-called activity-based therapy -- can revive damaged muscles and nerve endings, can replace blown fuses that disrupt the mind-body spinal connection. "What if people have the same ability to regenerate as reptiles?" he asks.

Indeed, McDonald insists that someday as many as 75 percent of paraplegics and quadriplegics will regain the ability to walk -- and that Pat Rummerfield is pointing the way toward a previously unimaginable future.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company