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Rob Wudlick: Mission to adventure again after paralysis

I grew up in Excelsior, Minnesota, and went to college in Bozeman, Montana to study Industrial & Management Engineering. Being in the West gave me so many opportunities to be active and outside: skiing, rafting and climbing. In 2011, I was rafting with friends in the Grand Canyon and broke my neck after diving into the river to retrieve a piece of trash that blew off one of our boats. It was really serious. After an hour on the beach, I was taken by helicopter to Las Vegas for treatment. Paramedics intubated me while I was conscious in the helicopter, and I remained on a ventilator for the next 2 1/2 months. I had immediate surgery to stabilize my spine, and was placed in the ICU unit. I flat-lined once and had to be revived.

I don’t remember a lot about the first week after the accident. My family said that I was awake but not really lucid; talking nonsense sometimes. I spent two weeks in the hospital in Las Vegas before being moved to Craig Hospital outside of Denver, CO for post-acute rehabilitation. This hospital has a strong reputation for handling brain and spinal cord injuries. There, they were able to wean me off of the ventilator and teach my family and I how to live with the injury that left me a quadriplegic.

I, of course, had given little thought to spinal cord injuries before my own accident. A friend from college had broken her neck in a car crash two or three years before my accident, but I don’t think you can prepare for this when it is you. Obviously it was very upsetting, but somehow 90% of the time I’m positive and moving forward. My goal is still total recovery. There are many major advances in the field of spinal cord rehabilitation that are inspiring me today.

After a few months at Craig Hospital, I moved back to Minnesota, and began going to the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute (formerly the Courage Center) for rehab three times a week. I work with the TheraStride(R) treadmill that supports some of my body weight in an upright position with a harness, while fitness specialists move my legs to help me walk. When a person without paralysis walks, their brain tells them to put that first foot forward. After that trigger, their neural pathways know the routine and are on auto-pilot. It’s like relearning to ride a bike, in layman’s terms. When you first start doing it, you have to think about balancing and pedaling. After awhile, it’s just instinctive, and you can do it easily. With the TheraStride, you’re working to establish new pathways; re-wiring.

In general, the more you work out, the more tired you get, but this really energizes me. I do forty-five minutes on the treadmill, then mat exercises, and Functional Electrical Simulation (FES), which has electrodes that send electrical pulses to paralyzed muscles to strengthen and restore their function. It is inspiring to me to see people who have been recently injured come to Courage Kenny and noticeably get better after few months, all because of this advanced therapy. I don’t think they would have come that far with traditional therapy. This pushes them the extra step out of their wheelchair, which they may not have received this advanced aggressive therapy a few years ago.

In addition to my own recovery, I’ve been working with others to mobilize more funding for spinal cord injury functional recovery research and improve public policy around disability issues. A group I am part of just started a non-profit where we are basing our efforts. Currently, the pressing issue is petitioning the White House to support a Spinal Cord Regenerative Initiative Project that will dedicate more research funding to spinal cord injury issues, improve access to physical therapy and fitness and create a new commission to oversee future work in this area . We need 100,000 signatures by August 27.

Locally, for the past three years our group has been working in the Minnesota Legislature to create a state fund to draw federal and private funding into spinal cord injury research. We partnered with the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance to increase our momentum. You can read more about our Get Up, Stand Up for the Cure initiative here. People in California established a similar center years ago and leveraged the initial investment from their legislature into millions of dollars in additional grants and contracts. We can build on local expertise at the University of Minnesota, the Mayo Clinic, among others, to build a local research movement that inspires innovation and enhances additional investment in finding a cure for paralysis. The issue touches so many people: car crashes, sports injuries and neurological diseases such as MS can leave anyone vulnerable to paralysis. There will be an incredible return on investment, both in jobs for scientists in Minnesota, opportunities for companies working with these issues, and – of course – in leading the nation for finding a cure for paralysis. Everyone involved seems to have a personal connection to the cause. The man who started this movement has a son who was paralyzed in an accident in Costa Rica.

There is so much promise out there. One of the big things in research is epidural stimulation. There is a neurostimulator on the market for pain management, and it is now modified to provide spinal cord injury stimulation that allows paralyzed people to move their legs again. It’s a breakthrough, and the early results are really exciting! The Christopher and Dana Reeves Foundation has, in part, funded that.

I stay really busy with my own recovery and doing what I can to improve the lives of all people with paralysis. I started a blog recently and hope that people will follow my progress. There is progress to report: I can move my arms a lot more now! As the title of the blog states, it is my “mission to adventure” again.

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