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Paralyzed surgeon overcomes the odds to re-enter the OR

Posted By: Becky Slatin meta_seperate Date Posted: November 29th, 2011 meta_seperate Category: Day in the Life, Health Care

After a devastating health diagnosis, major spinal surgery and paralysis from the waist down, no one would have blamed Ted Rummel, DO, if he had decided to retire and lead a low-key life. But a lot of people would have been surprised, most of all Dr. Rummel.

As a typical busy orthopedic surgeon, he was averaging 1,000 surgeries a year, seeing about 60 patients a day and moving through life at a fast pace. He kept busy away from work with his wife of 12 years, Kathryn, enjoying activities like golf, skiing and biking.

That was until a little over a year ago, when life as he knew it changed forever.

Dr. Rummel had been diagnosed with a cavernous hemangioma — a blood-filled sac in a nodule of his spinal cord — that 11 months later erupted and led to major spine surgery resulting in paralysis from his waist down and confinement to a wheelchair.

He was a changed man literally overnight.

“One of my first thoughts was, ‘Oh my gosh, my life as I know it was erased,’” he recalls. “Who you are out of the OR is gone and you have to redefine yourself.”

Although it took him a few months, Dr. Rummel knew one thing for sure — he would be back in the OR, not on the table as a patient, but performing the surgeries he loved and caring for the patients who made up his life’s work.

A new perspective on work

Now a year after his surgery, Dr. Rummel is seeing patients through Piper Spine Care and is on staff at Progress West HealthCare Center and Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital. And he is back in the OR performing hand and elbow surgeries at PWHC once a week, navigating the OR from his electric wheelchair.

How Dr. Rummel overcame the odds is remarkable and a testament to who he was before going through these life-changing events, says John Antes, president of PWHC and BJSPH.

Dr. Ted Rummel talks with patient Lisa Zangriles prior to her surgery. | Photo by Tim Mudrovic

“I have known Ted for almost six years, and he’s always been such a gentleman with a great attitude toward life before any of this happened,” he says. “Right before his surgery, he told me he was going to take a leave but he would be back. We didn’t know he’d be paralyzed, but he was determined. You really understand what the human spirit is capable of after knowing Ted and what he has been through.”

When Dr. Rummel was ready to return to work, he contacted Antes, who only needed a doctor’s signoff saying it was OK for him to return, and with the help of the OR staff at PWHC they made it possible.

“The design of the operating rooms at Progress West works well for him because it’s a newer facility and the rooms have accessibility that a lot of older hospitals do not,” Antes says. “We were ecstatic when he reached the point that he was ready to come back, and the medical staff and OR staff are energized by him.”

Dr. Rummel says the support he received from his family, colleagues, the hospital and his patients has been remarkable. In the OR, accommodations include sterile drapes that cover his wheelchair to maintain the room’s sterile field.

Now that he’s been on the other side as a patient and in a wheelchair, he says his perspective as a physician has changed. “I relate 100 percent differently to patients now. After going through something like this, you’re going to listen better and be more empathetic,” he says. “I really feel for their condition and how it’s affecting their life, such as not being able to use your hand.”

He says a few patients are a little taken aback when they first meet him. “I’d say about 10 percent are skeptical. You can see the shock on their face when I wheel into the room,” he says. “They’re usually the younger patients in their 20s and 30s. But most patients get it, and they realize I have a much more powerful message than I ever had before, which is that you have to stay motivated.”

Life can change suddenly

Dr. Rummel’s journey to this new way of life started at the beginning of an average week in September 2010. On a Monday while at work, he began feeling some pain in his back, and by Tuesday, there was numbness in his left leg. He knew that something was wrong due to his earlier diagnosis, and so he went to BJSPH, where several tests were conducted.

“Eventually, I was heading down Kingshighway in an ambulance to Barnes-Jewish Hospital,” says Dr. Rummel, who was also diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism and knew things were getting progressively worse. “I was sort of out of it and everything was happening so fast, but as a physician and surgeon, you just know the worst that can happen.”

Dr. Rummel’s best hope was having surgery, which was done on Oct. 1, 2010, by Washington University and BJH neurosurgeon Todd Stewart, MD, who had previously diagnosed him.

Although Dr. Rummel was paralyzed from the waist down, he had survived and made it through a difficult recovery that included a urinary tract infection and a blood infection. After a lengthy stay at BJH, Dr. Rummel was transferred to The Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis, where he would relearn how to function physically with his changed body and how to handle all of the emotional challenges.

“Your entire physiology changes, what you eat and drink,” he says. “You have to learn how to live again and find the activities that will help you.”

Since his stay at the Rehab Institute, Dr. Rummel has regular physical therapy, does electrical stimulation on his muscles due to the atrophy he has experienced, lifts adaptive weights and even uses a manual wheelchair for about 80 minutes a day to work on his strength.

Dr. Rummel drives an adaptive vehicle and recently got to go back out on the golf course with his wife, thanks to an adaptive golf cart. He hopes to try biking again and continue being active.

“There are tough times when you dream about playing golf, running or just working without a wheelchair, and then you wake up and it’s back to reality,” he says. “Those are tough mornings, and you have to tell those you love and who love you so they understand.”

Dr. Rummel says the emotional impact of what has happened can have as equally dramatic an effect as the physical impact.

“I wouldn’t have made it through any of this if it wasn’t for my wonderful wife,” he says. “I am so grateful for her and my family, who I’ve gotten to know all over again.”

Dr. Rummel is reflective on the fact that as a busy surgeon he may not have had the time to spend with his children and other family members, who all gave their time and energy to help care for him following his paralysis.

“I have found the key is to communicate with family and loved ones. I got to know my family again, and I regret the time I wasted,” he says. “The entire thing has made me phenomenally better with my family. It’s just been a very powerful experience.”

He says after being in the Rehab Institute and seeing so many young people who are paralyzed and facing uphill challenges, he hopes he can help others in some way.

“When this happened to me, I had a profession, was well-educated, had resources, family and colleagues to support me,” he says. “I know so many don’t have any of this, and I wrestle with how I can help others. One day I will.”

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