Pat Rummerfield is used to being described as a walking miracle. More than three decades after breaking his neck in several places, Rummerfield cannot only walk, he can also run and is considered to be a fully-functional quadriplegic.
The human spinal cord is a crucial pathway for nerves connecting the brain with the rest of the body. Unlike most critical body parts, the spinal cord does not repair itself if damaged. While there have been promising advances in research in recent years, there is currently no cure for spinal cord injury. Still, there are a few extraordinary cases of people, like Rummerfield, who have recovered.
Rummerfield now devotes his life to helping others who have suffered similar injuries. He spends a week every month working with patients at the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s International Center for Spinal Cord Injury, in Baltimore, Maryland. Technically, his job title at the institute is spokesperson and fundraiser. But his most important role is to be there for patients who first and foremost need his moral support.
“Being able to touch the lives of others, knowing what they’re going through, I myself have been in those same situations," he says. "I have had the same thoughts going through my brain that’s going through theirs. It’s a huge honor.”
In 1974, Rummerfield's neck was broken in four places in an auto accident. At the time, it was considered an impossible injury to recover from. Doctors told his father he would be dead within 72 hours. They didn’t know about Rummerfield’s undying will.
“A week later, there was another meeting with my father and they said that I had beaten a billion-to-one odds," Rummerfield says, "that they were pretty positive that I was going to live but the prognosis was still grim.”
He spent the first year at a physical rehabilitation facility. Then, he and his recently-retired father decided to manage his rehab on their own.
“Rehab was very very intense. Five hours a day. Whatever moved, I would lift a weight with it. And you know very slowly things started coming back. It took about three and a half years but I could drag my right side for about 100 feet (30 meters). Then I had to sit down and rest or take a nap.”
Defying the odds
After seventeen years of grueling rehabilitation, Rummerfield became a fully-functional quadriplegic - described by many as a “walking miracle.” After defying the odds, he was determined to break some records.
“When I got to that point where I could run, I immediately started doing races as ways of raising money, raising funds for spinal cord research and I have never stopped.”
He did more than just run. He completed a so-called “Ironman” triathlon in 1992. He is also a licensed race car driver and holds the land speed record for electric cars.
His miraculous recovery continues to confound doctors around the world. Few would argue Rummerfield's biggest asset is his mental strength.
“He has the determination of a warrior," says Dr. John McDonald, director of the rehab center. "He fights through pain, he’ll fight through anything. He will never give up.”
The National Spinal Cord Injury Association says fewer than one per cent of those with spinal cord injuries make a full recovery.
Medical researchers like Ann Choe are still trying to figure out how Rummerfield did it. “By studying his case both structurally, in the brain, and spinal cord -- functionally -- we hope to see what made it possible for him to recover. Those findings we hopefully can and will be able to apply to other patients.”
Whatever Rummerfield’s larger role may be for medical research, his life’s work is with patients like Erin Buckles. A conjoined twin at birth, her spinal cord was damaged during the separation surgery.
“It means a lot to us that he has taken such an interest in Erin," says Melissa Buckles, Erin's mother. "It tells us that he has the belief that she is going to walk someday, too. We look at Pat as a miracle but also something that is attainable.”
Nothing is certain, and the road to a possible recovery is a long haul. But one thing patients at Kennedy Krieger can be certain of, is that Rummerfield will be there to inspire them, every step of the way.
“At the end of the day, I don’t really think of myself as a celebrity or hero or anything like that. I just think that I am trying to help as many people along the way as I can. My goal is to someday being a part of helping everyone getting out of a wheelchair.”