Gabe Rodreick hopes U of M research could be key to walking again
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
"Some may have insurance, but that often runs out," says Hayden. "The state is always the safety net for everybody."
Inside the University of Minnesota's Stem Cell Institute, James Dutton, director of the iPS Cell Facility, pulls an image of a microscope slide onto a computer screen. It looks something like a picture of the night sky, only the stars are purple, and the galaxy, running through a winding ravine, is made of neon green clusters.
The picture, Dr. Parr explains, is actually a very small section of a mouse's spine, sliced "like a loaf of bread." The purple dots are nuclei, and the green marks are special cells developed by Parr and her team, dyed so they can differentiate them.
After completing her residency at the University of Toronto, Parr worked at the University of Miami's Project to Cure Paralysis, the country's most comprehensive spinal cord cure research center, where she conducted cell testing on large animals. She came to the University of Minnesota's Department of Neurosurgery two years ago to begin her research here.
A keen sense of justice originally attracted her to the research, along with a belief that the debilitating condition is simply unfair.
"It also seems to me, biologically, that it makes sense that there is a way to circumvent this," she says. "That there is a way to force the spinal cord to re-grow itself."
Here's how Parr's research works: When a spinal cord breaks, it almost never fractures into two pieces. Much more commonly, it's simply bruised. But the injury causes the cells around the injury to die, which is why the spine stops working. Specifically, the bruise or lesion kills off what is known as myelin, the material that insulates neurons and allows them to send signals to other parts of the body.
Picture insulation over a wire. If the insulation is gone, the wire cannot send its message. Without myelin, the spinal cord cannot function.
The basic scientific principle behind Parr's work is that cells called oligodendrocytes can rebuild the myelin — re-insulating the wires. But it's not as simple as just implanting oligodendrocytes. Instead, scientists have to implant stem cells that will eventually transform into oligodendrocytes.
In the past, researchers conducting similar experiments have used an embryonic stem cell — the original human cell that gives rise to all other cells. But since embryonic stem cells are by definition taken from another person, the body can reject the foreign cells. So instead, Parr and her team will take a cell from the patient, and manipulate its genes so it resembles an embryonic cell, which can then transform into the oligodendrocytes.
In other words, if a patient like Gabe eventually does receive the transplant, he would also be his own donor. This would have been impossible just a few years ago, before researchers Shinya Yamanaka and John Gurdon discovered how to reprogram ordinary adult skin cells into what acts like embryonic stem cells. The development won them the Nobel Prize in 2012.
If Parr's research makes it to human trials, it could be an enormous leap forward for cure research. Only one stem cell-based cure has ever made it to that phase in the past, the "Geron Study." Though scientists conducting the research believed it showed promise, the study was shut down early when the funding stopped. Parr would be in a prime position to benefit from the passage of the Jablonski-Rodreick bill. Her research is now mostly funded by a grant from an anonymous donor, but that money is going to dry up before the research is done. She's in the process of applying for a grant from the National Institute of Health, but that funding is extremely selective, and the competition is fierce.
"Funding is always the key parameter," says Dr. Walt Low, also of the University of Minnesota. "The more you can raise in terms of funding, the more you can put on a project."
Historically, funding has always been a problem with spinal cord research, which is why the science has moved relatively slowly until lately.
"It's a challenging field for research scientists," says Smith of Unite 2 Fight Paralysis. "Trying to attract bright people into the field has been difficult, because it's a very complex problem, and there's not a lot of money in it."
Gabe's friends file into his dad's home gym around 6 p.m., a garage space Matthew and his contractor neighbor remodeled after the accident. The room smells of campfire from the wood-burning stove providing heat on this cold January evening. A treadmill, weights, a harness, and other specialized exercise equipment have been pushed to the side to make space for a drum set, some amps, and a keyboard.
Gabe sits in the middle of the group, behind a microphone, and begins rocking back and forth in his chair, belting throaty lyrics over the scratchy PA. The band plays a song called "Blue Demon," which Gabe wrote about his accident.
"Blue demon/ What do you want from me?/ Blue demon/ Can't you just let me go on living?/ You just sit there in wait/ While using him as my bait/ It's impossible to choose/ When I got everything to lose/ Blue demon/ I'm broken/ So leave me be."
Gabe started the band, called Treading North, two years ago, as a way to get back into the music world he thought he'd lost forever when he found out he could no longer play piano. The band has played everywhere from Gabe's family's church to the Fine Line and the Cabooze.
"It feels really good to be doing music again," says Gabe. "Because for the last four years, I didn't know what I was doing."
He has also started writing fiction. In one of his stories, Gabe wakes up in his apartment and has miraculously regained the use of his body. He goes through his morning routine uninhibited by his chair. He brushes his teeth, eats breakfast, and takes a shower. While doing these things, Gabe explains in vivid detail everything he feels.
That's as far he's written, he says. "I haven't decided where I'm gonna go from there."
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