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

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

That was before the accident. Before Matthew made a promise to his son.

"I'm not cutting my hair until you get out of this chair," he told Gabe four years ago.

Originally from Philadelphia, Matthew graduated from high school with the intention of becoming a missionary or a pastor, but got derailed when he bought his first dime bag of pot in college. A few years later, he dropped out of the private school and found himself living in a bombed-out apartment building and smoking crank.

Gabe suffered a spinal cord injury on a trip to Costa Rica in 2008. Below: Matthew has never lost hope that he will see his son walk again.
Tony Nelson
Gabe suffered a spinal cord injury on a trip to Costa Rica in 2008. Below: Matthew has never lost hope that he will see his son walk again.
U of M Dr. Ann Parr's research could one day help people with spinal cord injuries walk again
Tony Nelson
U of M Dr. Ann Parr's research could one day help people with spinal cord injuries walk again

At age 24, he decided he needed to get clean, and if he was going to stay that way, he would need to leave Philly. He moved to Minneapolis and took a job working for a church's summer youth program.

That's where he met Carolyn Bredeson, a young woman who also worked for the church. The two began dating, and they got married after he got Carolyn pregnant.

Before their eventual divorce, Matthew and Carolyn had two sons, Gabe and Charlie. Gabe was the oldest by three years, and a daredevil from a young age, says Carolyn.

"He was always somewhere up a tree, you know, throwing himself over a fence," she says. "He was always very active and very vivacious, very extroverted."

Gabe was also a natural athlete. In middle school, he played for the school's soccer team, jumped hurdles, and pole vaulted. Gabe started taking piano lessons at age eight, and by the time he was a sophomore, he was accepted to the Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley.

He also got into an exchange program to Costa Rica through the American Foreign Service that same year. He would live abroad for one month and practice his Spanish. To raise money for the trip, Gabe recorded a CD of mostly original piano songs and sold copies at his family's church, Calvary Baptist. He left for the program on June 27.

The night that would change his family's life forever came nine days later, on July 6, 2008. It was just after dinner, and the sun had gone down in Minneapolis. Matthew was sitting at the kitchen table, chatting with his new fiancée, Kristin, when the phone rang. It was bad news.

Gabe collapsed on the beach, said the voice on the other end of the line, an employee of the American Foreign Service. But don't worry. This happens to a lot of U.S. kids, because they're not used to the climate. He's going to be fine.

Kristin didn't think much of it. Working in a hospital emergency room, she knew heat stroke was not uncommon, and was easily treatable.

The next call came about an hour later.

He's a little worse than we thought, said the caller. He was in the ocean. We've called an ambulance, because he's not coming around like he should.

The calls continued throughout the night. Neither Kristin nor Matthew remembers how many there were in total. Each time the phone rang, it got worse. When the final call came in, it was early the next morning.

Gabe has been transferred to Clinica Católica in San Jose, the voice said. He's broken his neck, and he has to have surgery. We have to do it now.

Matthew was living a nightmare. His son was undergoing major surgery in a foreign country 2,500 miles away, and Matthew didn't even have a passport. He had to get to his son. Somehow.

Matthew drove to the Hennepin County Government Center and was waiting at the service center before the doors opened. The clerk told him it was impossible to get a passport on a day's notice in Minneapolis. If he wanted to get on a plane within the week, he would have to go to Chicago. So Matthew caught the next flight out.

He remembers the day in vivid detail. The driver waiting for him at O'Hare. Getting to the passport office 20 minutes before closing. The flight to Costa Rica. Arguing with the driver in San Jose, who wanted to take him to the American Foreign Service headquarters before the hospital.

When he finally arrived at the hospital, it felt like weeks had passed, but it had actually been less than 36 hours since the last call. Gabe was lying in a bed, now out of surgery, wearing a soft collar.

"We both just fell apart," says Matthew. "I walked in and he just started crying, and I just started crying. It was a pretty rough sight to see."

Matthew didn't find out the details of what had happened to his son until he arrived in San Jose. Two days earlier, after spending the first leg of his trip with a host family, Gabe had traveled to Manuel Antonio National Park, a scenic beach on the Pacific Coast, where he met with other members of the program for a picnic.

While the food cooked on the grill, Gabe and a few others jumped into the ocean. After about two hours, Gabe was body surfing with a friend, Eduardo, and noticed they had floated down the beach from the rest of the group. Eduardo headed in, but Gabe decided to go out for one more wave.

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