Effort sweats from every pore on Pete Redfern’s face. His jaw stretches, his muscles strain and his eyes bulge.
“This is a lot tougher than wind sprints,” he says between heavy breaths.
And just what is it that is so taxing Redfern, former star pitcher at Sylmar High, an All-American at USC and a seven-year major league veteran?
The simple act of taking a step.
It isn’t simple for Redfern. Nothing is. Not since one tragic October afternoon in 1983 when he broke his neck diving into shallow water off Balboa Island and was paralyzed from the neck down.
Once it was thought such a step would not be possible, when, in the first traumatic hours after the accident, a doctor termed the paralysis permanent.
Redfern’s wife, Tina, didn’t believe it.
“The doctor told me Pete would be lucky if he could ever even sit up in a chair,” she says. “I thought it was just too soon for him to know that. I know he’s a doctor, I told myself, but he’s not God.”
So Tina demanded a second opinion.
And got new hope.
And today, slowly, step by step, that hope is turning into reality at the Institute For Living wing of the Northridge Hospital Foundation Medical Center, where Redfern is undergoing therapy.
He can walk 10 feet between parallel bars with the aid of three therapists and at the cost of a lot of perspiration.
“I work as hard at walking again,” he says, “as I once did at striking out Reggie Jackson.”
When Pete Redfern stood on a 4-foot sea wall on Oct. 29, 1983, he was a man poised at a crucial point in his baseball career.
His fastball and slider had always blown down every obstacle before him. He was L.A. City Player of the Year as a senior at Sylmar. He had a 7-3 record as a sophomore with USC in 1974 and returned in 1975 with a 9-3 mark, a 1.24 earned-run average and a conference-leading 120 strikeouts in 108 innings.
The Minnesota Twins chose him first in the secondary phase of the 1976 free-agent draft. It was a seven-year struggle. He never produced a better record than his 7-3 mark of 1979 or an ERA better than his 3.50 the same year. His career record was 42-48.
Things got really serious in 1982 when an elbow injury resulted in postseason surgery that required relocation of the ulnar nerve.
He came back as a free agent in ’83, signed at mid-season with the Dodgers and attempted a comeback in the bullpen of the club’s Albuquerque farm team. “In Albuquerque, my arm started feeling real good,” Redfern says.
On the day of the accident, however, his mail included his release notice from the Dodgers.
So much for the small problems.
“I was ready for his career to end,” Tina says, recalling her emotions the day the Redferns and several friends went down to Newport Beach for a few days of boating. “I was tired of the traveling. I didn’t want to have to keep pulling our son, Chad, in and out of school and I wasn’t all that happy living in Minnesota after coming from Southern California.”
But neither Tina nor anyone else was ready for the way her husband’s career ended.
“My friends were out sailing,” Pete says. “I could see them from the wall and I decided to dive off from there to help them out.”
It wasn’t until he was in the air that he knew he had made a potentially fatal mistake. The water was no more than a foot or two deep. The best he could do was draw his knees up to his chest before he hit.
“It all happened so fast,” Redfern says. “I’m not sure to this day how I landed. Everything went numb. I could see my hand barely resting on the bottom. I was trying to get the arm to move, but I couldn’t. I thought, ‘Oh no, I’ve messed my back up. I’ve ruptured a disc.’ ”
If only it had been so simple.
He was floating face down in the water, and his friends figured he was just fooling around. Paralyzed, he couldn’t turn over. He couldn’t do anything. And he was rapidly running out of air.
“I must have held my breath for two minutes,” he says. “I was about ready to give up.”
Almost literally at the last second, one of his friends, Scott Swett, became concerned, walked up and turned him over.
When the paramedics and the fire department arrived, Redfern’s hands were placed on his chest. They kept falling off.
“That was when we realized it was very serious,” Tina remembers. “That’s when it became very real. A paramedic told me he broke his neck. I couldn’t believe it was happening. In the past, he’d had injuries and he’d always gotten better. I was sure he would again once we got to the hospital.”
At the hospital, though, the best Redfern could do was move his left hand a little.
“That was it,” he says. “They checked my reflexes and I had none. The doctor told Tina, ‘What you see is the way he is going to be.’ He didn’t give us much hope. Fortunately, Tina said, ‘No way.’ She got another opinion. Her spirit is what lifted mine. I don’t think I’d be here today if not for her. She took control of the whole situation.”
Not at first.
“I think I went into shock,” she says. “I understood. I understood what they were telling me, but I couldn’t believe what they were telling me if you know what I mean. And I didn’t want him (Pete) to believe it.”
Tina says the first doctor, whom she declined to name, dampened her spirit even when her husband was able to make minor movements.
“He told me, ‘Don’t get too excited. It’s no big deal.’ I knew the situation was not encouraging, but he did not have to make it that discouraging,” Tina says.
A couple of days later, a second opinion generated far more encouraging news. Pete’s spinal cord had been pinched, not severed, between the fourth and fifth vertebrae. There was muscle reaction.
Surgery was performed to relieve the pressure and wire the third, fourth, fifth and sixth vertebrae together in an effort to fuse them.
“Tina was told the signal was going through,” Redfern says. “The lesion was not severe enough to block it. I would walk again someday.”
And so at 30, Pete Redfern finds himself back in spring training this year, not in some glamorous Florida resort getting ready for another major league season, but at a Northridge hospital, working out daily for a much bigger goal--victory over paralysis.
He undergoes physical and occupational therapy, pool therapy and the slow development of fine motor skills. He works at all this five days a week as an outpatient after spending six weeks in Hoag Memorial Hospital in Newport Beach, and five months in a bed at the Northridge facility.
“I got out of Hoag on Dec. 12, 1983, and out of Northridge on May 31, 1984,” Redfern says. “I know all the dates.”
At first, he was forced to wear a halo around his head. It had nothing to do with good behavior, and looked like something the Marquis de Sade might recommend. The device is worn over the head and neck to keep them in traction, thus preventing further damage. Redfern no longer needs it.
He also had tubes jammed down his throat and up his nose after his right lung collapsed one night, and he nearly died again from lack of air.
Today, Redfern walks between parallel bars, on the floor and in a pool. He uses weight machines to build up strength. And, with the aid of therapists, he works at turning himself over and gaining some mobility in bed.
“It’s a process of reteaching and restrengthening my legs,” he says. “They are getting stronger. As long as my progress is uphill, it’s fine.”
Just looking at him, the results of all this labor are immediately obvious. The 6-2 Redfern weighed 195 pounds in his playing days. The months of forced inactivity shrank that to 165. Now, he’s back up to 180.
“Spinal injuries can be complete or incomplete,” therapist Nancy Schneider says. “Pete’s, fortunately, is not complete. His balance, coordination and selective muscle movement have all changed drastically. He has to learn just how much control of his muscles he has. There is some spasticity. When the muscles tighten up, he has no control over them.”
Nora Kubota, Redfern’s physical therapist, calls him “very motivated.” What he is doing, she says, is “maximizing his potential. He doesn’t give up. That’s very important. He is more self-sufficient all the time. He can propel his wheelchair now independently. He is not too dependent on his therapists. The fact he is making progress and the fact he is working so hard is very inspiring to all the therapists here.”
To assist him, Redfern has private nurses who care for him four days a week while his wife works as a manicurist. Insurance from the Major League Players Assn. has paid nearly all his medical costs.
“He’s very even tempered, the best I’ve ever worked with,” says Steve Whitney, one of those nurses. “He’s a professional. If he hadn’t been an athlete, he wouldn’t have made it. Because of that, his body has responded in certain ways.”
“Being an athlete contributed to my frame of mind,” he says. “I know how hard work will pay off.”
And he is just starting to get the rewards.
“To walk is just one of his goals and he has that in sight after just about a year,” Whitney says. “It was only a couple of weeks ago that he took his first steps on dry land on the parallel bars. Two weeks ago, he wrote for the first time, unassisted, without splints on his hand.
“He’s still a major league player as far as I’m concerned. His all-star moment will be when he walks again unassisted.”
Redfern thinks he knows when that will be.
“I’d like to be walking with a walker by Christmas,” he says, “but I’m taking it a day at a time, a step at a time. I can feed myself now, drink by myself, wash myself and brush my teeth. I still need assistance dressing, but I’m going to need that for some time. I’m just not strong enough.
“But hey, I’m going to work as hard as I can to get as much movement as I can. If I can walk, that will be a blessing from God, but now I can hug my kid and my wife, and that was my goal to begin with.”
Redfern has returned to live in Sylmar with Tina, his wife of eight years, and Chad, 4, his son.
But that’s not where he heads when he’s done with therapy.
Instead, he maneuvers his wheelchair over to his van and he and Whitney, his driver, are off to Mission College, where Redfern is preparing for a new future. (“I have an electric wheelchair but I never use it,” he says. “That’s not going to do my arms any good.”)
At Mission, he is taking computer classes, learning to converse intelligently about modems and software instead of fastballs and curves. Computers are something he can handle from his chair and perhaps make a career.
It is spring, but it has been a while since this young man’s fancy has turned to baseball.
“As soon as this thing happened, baseball became a thing of the past,” Redfern says. “I was more concerned with staying alive. The importance of that (baseball) compared to getting back on my feet is immeasurable.
“Some day I wouldn’t mind scouting or having something to do with baseball. I love the game.”
Says Tina, “When the season started last year, he wasn’t even sure he wanted to watch the games, but he was fine.”
Actually, Redfern’s sports passion these days is basketball. A casual correspondence with the Lakers’ Magic Johnson prior to the accident turned into a close tie afterward. Johnson brought a game ball to the hospital. There were so many visitors, including many teammates, former opponents and, a particular favorite, Laker general manager Jerry West.
Laker promotions director Lon Rosen talked Redfern into his first trip outside the hospital--to a Laker game, of course--and his wheelchair is has been a regular sight at the Forum ever since.
He even buys tickets for other wheelchair-bound patients to join him.
There have been others who have shown concern for Redfern.
“I have gotten tons of letters from around the country,” he says, “from fans and from people who were not even fans.” Redfern even received a letter from James Brady, the White House press secretary who was paralyzed in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan.
But it is what he has gotten from his wife that Redfern values most.
“She showed a strength I didn’t think she had,” he says. “Without that strength, I don’t think I would have had the strength to go on. A lot of women would have given up, not been able to make the adjustment. But she just figures she now has a 4-year-old boy to raise and a husband to take care of.”
Tina shrugs off the praise.
“When you are in that situation, you have no other choice,” she says. “You do it. I’m glad I was right and that first doctor was wrong. I think Pete would do the same thing for me.
“My main goal in life is to keep him going. When I would get down, my son would pick me up.”
From Pete, there is no such admission.
“I haven’t let myself get down,” he says. “There are people out there a lot worse off then I am. I’ve seen it all since I’ve been at the hospital.”
He was denied the companionship of his own father, who died when he was young, and one thing Redfern is most grateful for is that his son has not suffered the same loss.
The Redferns are slowly beginning to enjoy life. Pete allowed some friends to convince him to accompany them on a trip to Hawaii last fall. And when a special ramp was brought up to the plane to handle his wheelchair, he laughed and said, “Watch out! They are coming for the elephant.”
Slowly, he is adjusting.
“He gets frustrated,” Tina says. “He gets tired of therapy. It’s been a long time and it’s still going to be a long time until he walks by himself.
“But your ideas change about life, about what’s important and what isn’t. That’s what life is all about. Even if he couldn’t walk, he would live his life to the fullest from a wheelchair. That’s the type of person he is.
“Ups and downs are what our life has always been about. I wouldn’t know how to adjust to a normal life. I’d probably go crazy. If he can’t get out of a wheelchair, we’ll adjust and make a life that’s normal for us.”