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

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

But something went wrong. He dove head-first into a sandbar, hyper-extending his neck and fracturing two vertebra. The next thing Gabe knew, he was facedown underwater. He couldn't move. He couldn't feel anything.

"I was fearful for my life," he says. "There was a moment where I was like, 'I feel like I'm just going to float out to sea. Nobody's going to see me.'"

Then he heard the garbled sound of voices. Someone pulled him out of the water, and packed his neck with sand. An ambulance arrived, and EMTs strapped Gabe to a hard wooden board. He fell in and out of consciousness during the three-hour ride to the nearest hospital, only to get there and be told they had to reroute to San Jose, another three-hour drive.

Gabe works out six days a week to keep his body in the best possible shape
Tony Nelson
Gabe works out six days a week to keep his body in the best possible shape

Gabe doesn't remember much after that. His dad showed up some at point, then later his mom. Doctors appeared by his bedside, then disappeared.

"You broke your C5 and C6," he recalls one saying. "You are now quadriplegic."

Gabe stayed in San Jose for a week until he had recovered from the surgery well enough to fly home. When he arrived back in Minneapolis with his parents, his brother, Charlie, picked them up from the airport with a family friend.

Charlie knew what had happened, but it wasn't real until he saw his older brother in the neck brace and wheelchair.

"It was almost as if I didn't know him," Charlie says.

Nothing would be the same after the accident. Gabe spent three months in hospitals after he returned to the U.S., first at the University of Minnesota-Fairview, and later at the Gillette Children's Hospital. His father took a leave of absence from his job — which he ultimately quit entirely — to practically live with Gabe in the hospital, leaving only to sleep and for his own wedding.

Gabe remembers trying to eat yogurt for the first time, and the difficulty of simply bringing the food to his mouth without spilling. If he felt a sudden itch on his nose, he had to call someone into the room to scratch it.

Adjusting to living at home was equally difficult. He split his time between his parents' houses. Someone had to be with him always, and wake up several times throughout the night to change his catheter.

"Looking back at it sometimes, I don't know how we got through it," says Matthew's now-wife, Kristin Rodreick-Wilson.

Gabe tried to attend Perpich that winter, but ultimately dropped out. It was too hard. But in spite of the difficulties his injury brought, Gabe refused to stagnate.

"I was just kinda like, 'I've gotta keep moving,'" Gabe remembers. "From the beginning, it was just, 'Go.' Why not keep going, and do what you can to lead a good life?"

Much of that first year was spent traveling. He and his parents went for two weeks to San Diego for Project Walk, a recovery center where Matthew learned how to be Gabe's trainer. They spent four months shuttling back and forth to a similar program in Kansas City.

The next fall, they ventured to the NuTech Mediworld in India so Gabe could receive a controversial stem-cell treatment. Over the course of two trips to NuTech, Gabe and his father spent four months in a tiny room at the institute together.

"Every now and then, I think that I should go to a caregiver support group," says Matthew. "I wear a lot of hats with my son. I'm his advocate. I'm his nurse. I wipe his butt. I put a catheter in his penis. I've crossed all the boundaries with him, and then I'm his dad."

As time went by, Gabe learned to move forward. He grew more independent, and moved out of his parents' houses into an apartment with two roommates.

"It just seems like he has his priorities in order," says one roommate, Ben Cannon, who has known Gabe since kindergarten. "He's just way more confident than I am, or most people are."

Matthew has never lost his faith that his son will one day walk again. He became an expert on cure research, and began blogging about his experiences. After coming to understand how the lack of funding was slowing progress, he decided to intervene. He first met with Senator Hayden in 2011, and helped author a bill that would have designated a surcharge from DUIs in Minnesota to cure research. But the measure didn't move forward in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

To draw attention to the second bill, Matthew decided to create a documentary film. The idea was to find a well known figure to spend a day in a wheelchair. Matthew reached out to Vikings punter Chris Kluwe over Twitter. (This was just weeks before Kluwe authored the pro-gay-rights letter that would catapult him to national celebrity.) The video, filmed last October, will premiere at Brave New Workshop in downtown Minneapolis on January 24.

Hayden will introduce the new bill — named after Gabe and Jablonski — to the Legislature at a press conference this week. Instead of a DUI surcharge, the bill will ask for $4 million to be used solely for cure research. Though the similar bill failed in 2012, Hayden is optimistic that he will have more luck with the new DFL majority, even with the state's projected $1.1 billion deficit. If the bill can expedite a cure, Hayden believes it will be a cost-saving measure in the long term, given how much the state ends up spending on spinal cord injury patients each year. For a high-level quadriplegic person who sustained the injury at 25 years old, lifetime costs are estimated at $4,373,912, according to the University of Alabama.

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