They were two 21-year-olds, joy riding, celebrating impending engagements to high school sweethearts, and Kevin Berg was stretching out Pat Rummerfield’s ’63 ‘Vette, which gave Rummerfield time to nurse the wine bottle.
The joy went out of the ride that night, Sept. 20, 1974, about 1 1/2 miles west of Kellogg, Idaho, when the car left Interstate 90 at 135 mph and turned over . . . and over . . . and over.
Berg walked away with a chipped tooth.
Rummerfield was taken away in an ambulance with four broken vertebrae that said walking was history.
Running apparently was another matter, though, because he will do 26 miles, 385 yards of it Sunday in the Los Angeles Marathon.
By the time Simon Bor or Christopher Cheboiboch or whoever wins the race breaks the tape on Flower Street, Rummerfield will be somewhere on Wilshire Boulevard, halfway through the course, plodding along, behind many, ahead of some, running with the majority to whom competition is personal, not professional.
“I can run 10-minute miles all day,” he says.
It was taking that first step that was the miracle.
Rummerfield was awake through most of the crash and its aftermath that summer-ending night so long ago, and he remembers trying to brace himself on a handle in the dashboard, then finally winding up behind the front seat, an eye knocked out of his head by the concussion.
He felt nothing.
“They took 150 stitches to put my face and scalp back on,” he says quietly.
The eye, hanging just below the socket when his eyelid tore open, was reattached and he sees out of it just fine today.
“I remember the doctor saying to patch me up to save the mortician the job,” he said.
Stitching was the easy part. Broken bones can’t be sewn together, and he had plenty of those. The operative nomenclature here is C-3, C-4, C-5, C-6. They are four of the seven vertebrae in the neck, and his were no longer operative. The technical term is a series of compression fractures.
Rummerfield was given 72 hours to live.
Seven days later, his life still in danger, he learned that quadriplegics in his condition could live three to five years.
Now, more than 25 years later, he runs and drives cars . . . fast . . . and takes his 13- and 15-year-old daughters to dance class in St. Louis. The high school sweetheart went her own way. His wife of 18 years, Connie, puts up with a husband who refuses to stay in one place very long. Who in October drove an electric-powered streamliner owned by Ed Dempsey of Newport Beach to a world-record 245.523 mph on the salt flats at Bonneville, Utah.
Who is making good on a promise he made in a hospital bed, while staring at an X-ray.
“I said, ‘God, just give me a second chance,’ ” Rummerfield said. “ ‘I’ll do anything I can to help other people with this.’ ”
He got that second chance at Sharp’s Institute in San Diego, where he was taken for treatment. He had been a 6-foot, 205-pound former high school basketball player in Idaho, working in a lead mine, raising hell and dreaming of a career driving cars in Europe. Five weeks after the accident, he was a 126-pound quadriplegic patient.
A few weeks after arriving at Sharp’s, he found that he could move the big toe on his left foot.
He got so excited that he began flopping around, out of control.
“I thought I had fallen out of the bed,” he says.
Once calmed, he started doing “toe curls.” Then the rest of the toes began operating. “Left leg, right foot, right leg, left arm . . . " he recites the weeks- and months-long recovery of his body to, if certainly not normality, at least functionality.
And then, a step, and another, and another, and then three or four at a time.
“I was at Sharp’s six months, getting better and better,” says Rummerfield, who has no need for a wheelchair these days. “I checked myself out of there and went home, one of the worst mistakes of my life.”
A job was created for him at the Idaho lead mine, where he had once worked, and he continued to rehabilitate, but three months later a reevaluation sent him back to Sharp’s for more work.
The key was to keep him moving, but he didn’t know that. For that matter, doctors didn’t know it either.
All he knew was that what he felt wasn’t something he wanted to deal with the rest of his life.
“Less than 20% of the people who come in and are told they will be paralyzed for the rest of their lives” recover at least some use of their limbs, says Dr. John McDonald, who as director of the spinal cord injury program treats Rummerfield at St. Louis’ Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
McDonald uses Rummerfield’s MRI as an example of what is possible, showing it to other doctors, who say it is the MRI of a quadriplegic.
“Pat had early activity, which is necessary for regeneration of cells in the spinal column,” McDonald says.
It’s a relatively new theory--called by McDonald “An Activity Dependent Program"--that is being tested by McDonald and his colleagues. It’s one Rummerfield proved, quite by accident, a quarter of a century ago, when his case was looked upon as fortunate fate.
Asked if the entire situation might merely have been a matter of being misdiagnosed, Rummerfield says, “No. No chance of that. It’s a miracle. That’s all I can say about it. My MRI now shows where there is still damage.”
And McDonald adds, “The MRI supports the diagnosis. It is what you might call an unexplained outcome. A miracle.”
McDonald added that there are two theories.
“It could have been that his corresponding head injury could have masked the extent of his spinal cord injury and made it appear worse than it was,” he said, “or, there has also been some recent evidence that supports a theory that, when there are two injuries like this (head and spinal in this case), one helps regenerate the cells in the other.”
Rummerfield has gone from small steps, to walking to running, incrementally but with increasing speed. His bones are brittle now--he broke one near his knee when he stepped in a hole on an icy street in St. Louis months ago while training for the L.A. Marathon--and he’ll be the one running with his head down Sunday, not failing to acknowledge the cheers, but because he has to concentrate.
His motor skills are different from most everyone else’s.
“Close your eyes and lift your arm,” McDonald says. “You know where it is, right? Well, Pat doesn’t always, and so he looks at his legs and tells them where to go.”
His rehabilitation-training is ongoing. Rummerfield ran the marathon at the end of the Ironman Triathlon in 1992, and also ran one in Antarctica in ’97.
“I thought it would be flat, just tundra, you know?” he says. “The first four miles [were] uphill, and it was like running up a Popsicle. I stepped in a crack in the ice and cracked my [shinbone].”
It was a different fracture than the one suffered in St. Louis. Because he has little feeling in his legs, he didn’t know it until after completing the race.
It’s all part of a story that he tells easily, to anyone who will listen, to anyone who he thinks can learn something from it.
Sam Schmidt hears it a lot.
Schmidt, an Indy car driver who became a quadriplegic when he was injured while testing at Orlando, Fla., in early January, also is a patient in St. Louis. Rummerfield has taken a personal interest in Schmidt, who did what Rummerfield longs to do: drive race cars.
“He has a wealth of information [about driving cars],” Rummerfield says. “I find it’s always more beneficial to people if they can find a common interest.”
In this case, cars. And legs.
It’s not exactly a one-sided conversation. Rummerfield’s interest in race cars never has abated, and it wasn’t satisfied by the Bonneville world-record run in the electric car.
“I had heard his story before I ever met Pat,” said Dempsey, a retired concrete-cutter who has opened a business with world speed records in mind. “This guy could set an example for a lot of people who have had spinal injuries.”
That was driving in a straight line against the clock. Rummerfield wants to race and is pursuing a ride in the American Le Mans Series, having attended racing schools to work on his driving.
And to St. Louis city streets, working on running.
And to a hospital, working on Sam Schmidt.
And to his foundation, Nextsteps, for which he runs Sunday.
It’s designed to help research in spinal injuries, but more important, to get the word out that there is hope for many where there didn’t used to be.
“Pat has an amazingly normal life,” McDonald says. “What Pat can do with a patient in 10 minutes. . . . Me, I’ve taken care of hundreds, thousands of patients, but I haven’t been through it. Pat has been through it.”
He’ll be the one with his head down Sunday, plodding well behind the lead pack, going through it again, winning, no matter when he finishes.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Time: 8:20 a.m.
Start: 6th and Figueroa
Finish: 5th and Flower