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'He's certainly one in a million': Patrick Rummerfield's incredible journey as first fully-functioning quadriplegic

Patrick Rummerfield was paralyzed in 1974. Today, he's chasing his next athletic adventure as the first fully-functional quadriplegic.

ST. LOUIS — You've probably heard inspirational sports stories before of people overcoming obstacles to reach their athletic dreams.

You likely haven't heard a story quite like Patrick Rummerfield's.

We begin the story nearly 50 years ago: Sept. 20, 1974. Rummerfield was riding in a car going 135 miles per hour in northern Idaho. It hit a ditch. He broke his neck in six places and was paralyzed from the neck down.

"The doctors came back with a grim prognosis that I only had 72 hours to live," Rummerfield told 5 On Your Side's Frank Cusumano. "And back in those days, that was definitely a death sentence."

But after some time in the hospital, something amazing began to happen.

"One day after training, the nurses had put me back to bed and I was laying there daydreaming about racing corvettes and playing basketball. All of a sudden my left big toe moved," Rummerfield said. "I started flopping around like a fish out of water, screaming for the nurse. They came in and sedated me. And then the doctors came in and said, 'So what? You've got a left big toe you can move, what are you going to do with that?' And I said, 'I don't know. But if nothing else, I'll start left big toe weightlifting competitions and I'll have the strongest left big toe in the world'."

Rummerfield went on to do much more than win left big toe lifting competitions.

After 17 years of intensive and excruciating physical therapy, Rummerfield competed in the Ironman competition in Hawaii. That's a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.

He is the first fully-functioning spinal cord-injured quadriplegic. But the physical activity does come with some increased challenges.

"I don't know where my feet are in space, so I have to watch my feet when I run," Rummerfield told Cusumano for a story in 2000.

So, how was this turnaround even possible?

Rummerfield had damage in his spinal cord at the C4 vertebrae, but 20% of the axons and neurons remained connected.

"I would say you shouldn't be able to walk or use your hands," Rummerfield's doctor, Zack Ray of Washington University and Barnes Jewish Hospital said of his patient's X-rays.

"I don't have a great explanation. Again, I think that's why Pat's case has been so interesting."

Rummerfield has gone on to impact the world in a number of ways over the years. 

In 1999, he became the first man to drive a car 250 miles per hour. He also has given back as a humanitarian, donating his time to helping quadriplegics getting treatment at Barnes Jewish Hospital.

In 2022, he's working towards his next goal.

Rummerfield, now 68, is training at Lifetime Fitness in Ellisville, Missouri with the intention of climbing the Manitou Incline in Colorado Springs on Aug. 10. That's 2,744 steps, nearly straight up a mountain.

"(He's) probably one of my most dedicated clients," Lifetime Fitness trainer Alex Placke said. "He comes in here every single day wanting me to push him and push his weight and get him stronger. And it's amazing to see him getting stronger every single time he comes in."

Rummerfield is making the climb to raise money for Missouri Kids, an organization that supports and aids school athletes who have been critically injured. 

He knows the journey will be even tougher than some of his past feats, but Rummerfield is determined.

"There's very little feeling from the knees down," he said. "My balance isn't as good as it used to be. And, I'm getting old."

"He wants to put kneepads on so that he can be able to crawl if he has to and get to the top of the mountain," Placke said. "It's extraordinary."

"Extraordinary" is probably the word that describes Rummerfield, the world's first fully-functional spinal cord-injured quadriplegic, the best.

"The only way you can win a race, is you've got to participate in one. I know from my own experience if I don't work my fanny off trying to stay in shape, I'll never be able to do the goals I want to do," Rummerfield said.

"He's certainly the one in a million," Ray said.

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