Gabe Rodreick hopes U of M research could be key to walking again

Sen. Jeff Hayden introduces bill to fund curative spinal cord science

Gabe Rodreick hopes U of M research could be key to walking again
Peter Ryan

Gabe Rodreick begins every day staring at his bedroom ceiling. A 20-year-old with a long beard and hair past his shoulders, Gabe was rendered quadriplegic in an accident almost five years ago. He can't sit up or turn over.

Gabe's personal-care assistant, Nick, picks him up off the bed and places him in a wheelchair. Gabe rolls over the carpeted floor to a shelving unit stacked with clothes. He scans each garment before saying, "The orange one."

Nick peels off Gabe's T-shirt, and places the clean one around Gabe's neck. He pulls Gabe's arms through each sleeve, and tugs the shirt down over Gabe's stomach. The shirt carries the colors of Minneapolis South High School, Gabe's alma mater, along with the words "Track and Field" — a remnant of Gabe's days as a high school pole vaulter.

Matthew (left) and his son Gabe have traveled the world searching for a cure. Now they hope to find answers right here in Minnesota.
Tony Nelson
Matthew (left) and his son Gabe have traveled the world searching for a cure. Now they hope to find answers right here in Minnesota.
Growing up, Gabe was a talented piano player and natural athlete
courtesy of Matthew Rodreick
Growing up, Gabe was a talented piano player and natural athlete

Nick straps something to Gabe's arm. It looks like a brace, but has fixtures into which Gabe can attach a toothbrush or a spoon, allowing him to maneuver the utensils.

Gabe wheels down the hall of the three-bedroom apartment, where he lives with two friends, to the bathroom, where he begins brushing his teeth. Nick brings over a cup of water so Gabe can wash his mouth out.

"Breakfast," says Gabe.

"What do you want?" asks Nick.

"Eggs. Raisin Bran. Apple."

Gabe's morning routine can take up to two hours. The healthy breakfast and a series of vitamins are vital. If a cure for his injury is ever discovered, Gabe will have to be in top physical condition for it to work. That's why, after he's done getting ready, he will head to the gym to exercise for at least four hours — a routine he does six days a week — before band practice.

For all the inconveniences his accident causes, Gabe knows things could be worse. Many quadriplegic people suffer from blood clots, respiratory problems, and constant pain that requires heavy medication. Perhaps because he stays in such good shape, Gabe doesn't have to take any prescription drugs.

"So I feel pretty lucky," he says.

Mankind has studied the spinal cord for thousands of years. The first reference to a spine injury can be traced back to about 1700 B.C. in an ancient Egyptian medical text known as the "Edwin Smith Papyrus."

Yet in more than three and a half millennia, no one has been able to solve the puzzle of how to fix the spine when it breaks.

About 265,000 people in the U.S. are currently suffering the devastating consequences of a spinal cord injury, according to data gathered by the University of Alabama-Birmingham's National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center. Of those, approximately 56 percent are classified as varying levels of quadriplegic, meaning they suffer paralysis in all four limbs. Gabe is one of those.

But scientists say there is reason for optimism. Though paralysis is often thought to be a permanent condition, recent developments in spinal cord injury research suggest a cure is not only possible, but could be close at hand.

"In the last five years, there have been some pretty significant breakthroughs in the understanding of regeneration," says Marilyn Smith, executive director of Unite 2 Fight Paralysis. "Now, to put it in lay terms, the devil is in the details."

At the University of Minnesota's Stem Cell Institute, neuroscientist Ann Parr is in the early stages of taking that emerging research to the next level. Parr and her team are working on creating unique stem cells that could be implanted in a patient with a spinal cord injury. The cells would regenerate the dead cells around the spinal cord — essentially re-growing a broken spinal cord.

Parr's research might not be the answer in itself, but it could restore lost function in people with spinal cord injuries and be a key piece of the puzzle that would one day allow people like Gabe to stand up and walk again, she says.

"I don't think it's going to be an overnight miracle," says Parr. "I think that's clear to everybody that it's not."

But Parr's research team faces a serious threat of running out of funding before her study makes it to human trials.

Gabe's father, Matthew Rodreick, wants to do something about that. Matthew is working with Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, to introduce a bill to the Legislature that would appropriate $4 million to be used by Minnesota scientists like Parr for curative spinal cord research. The bill, named after Gabe and Jack Jablonski — the Minnesota high school student who suffered a spinal cord injury during a hockey game — will be introduced at a Capitol press conference this week. Matthew is also unveiling a documentary featuring outspoken Vikings punter Chris Kluwe spending a day in a wheelchair.

Half a decade after his son's injury, Matthew is determined to see him walk again.

With the help of his bill, he believes a cure could be within reach.

"Matthew is the one that's going to make change," says Kurt Wiger, co-founder of the Minnesota Spinal Cord Injury Association. "But he understands that he's not going to do it alone."

Sitting at his dining room table on a recent morning, Matthew Rodreick wears a white goatee and long dreadlocks pulled back into a ponytail, perfectly capturing the archetypal Minneapolis hippie aesthetic. But only five years ago, Matthew looked quite different. He wore his hair short, and instead of jeans and flannel, he dressed most days in a suit and tie. He worked as an operations supervisor of a hospital emergency room.

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