The Inspirational Story of a Paralyzed Surgeon who Continues to Operate

Dr. Ted Rummel thought his life was pretty much over when he was left paralyzed from the waist-down in 2010. The exceptional surgeon had been diagnosed with a cavernous hemangioma – a blood filled cyst – in the middle of his spinal cord a year earlier. Neurologists told him the cyst couldn’t be surgically removed, as the procedure would paralyze him instantly. Instead he was told to rest, wait, and pray the cyst never ruptured.

Unfortunately for Dr. Rummel, the cyst did burst in September 2010, just a week after he performed a rotator cuff surgery on his wife Kathy – his last surgery for the next two years. He suffered a terrible back ache, followed by numbness and weakness in his legs. Within days, “a wave crashed over his lower body and took all feeling and mobility with it.” Dr. Rummel was paralyzed for life.

It’s sad that something so terrible should have happened to him, after he cured thousands of people in St. Charles County of pain and stiffness in their joints. In his best days, he had practiced over 1,000 surgeries per year in O’Fallon, Missouri.


Photo: Make Medicine Better video caption

Yet, on a clear December morning in 2012, Dr. Rummel was back in the O.R. doing what he does best. It was as though he had never been away. He performed surgery on a patient’s shoulder, a procedure that required him to be standing. The resilient doctor stood for over an hour, completed an uneventful surgery and later, took his team out for pizzas. “I’m back,” he kept exclaiming in relief. “I’m back.”

Dr. Rummel’s story is incredibly inspirational. The Missouri doctor’s rehabilitation from his own disease was a long-drawn and complicated process, but he made it work with sheer grit. He had developed a blood clot in his lung and contracted many serious infections. He suffered from a deep depression over his condition. Things got so bad that one day he found himself on the back deck of his house, a gun in his hand. The thought of his wife, kids and grandchildren forced him to keep going.


Photo: Make Medicine Better video caption

Publicly, Dr. Rummel always preferred to put up a brave front. He never cried over his troubles, at worst he texted his friends that he was having a ‘bad day’. People admired his optimism, sense of humor and upbeat attitude. He hated being pitied and had no patience for a negativity. Nurse Diana Eisenbath, who assisted the doctor for 17 years, said, “He told me, ‘If you’re going to be down, you’re out of here.’”

It was this attitude of Rummel’s that soon helped him get back to his favorite sport – golf. Using a motorized golf chair, he was able to swing with both arms from a near-upright position. He could hit the ball almost 200 yards off the tee.


Photo: Make Medicine Better video caption

Golfing wasn’t good enough for Rummel; he longed to be back in the operating room. When Kathy saw his energy and passion for the job, she was convinced he should go back – and he did. From his wheelchair, he began operating on patient’s elbows, knees, feet and ankles. For his first operation, another surgeon stood nearby to assist him, but Dr. Rummel was fine on his own. His skills were intact – he was just as good as before.

Although his achievements were extraordinary, Dr. Rummel still wasn’t satisfied. His favorite surgeries involving the shoulder joint had the patients in a sitting position, which meant he had to be standing. He obviously couldn’t reach them from his wheelchair. And then he had an idea – a standing wheelchair.


Photo: Make Medicine Better video caption

The hospital where Rummel worked approved the purchase of a $35,000 standing wheelchair that was specially customized for him. It has a seat belt and chest strap to keep him in place, and padded supports for the knees to withstand his weight. The control pad for the chair is installed at the back, so the surgical field can remain sterile. A roving nurse controls the chair in the operating room.

After several test runs, Dr. Rummel’s chair was ready for use in December, 2012. His first patient – Dave Shelton – whose wife was operated by the doctor years before. Shelton was eager to get on the operating table and witness Rummel in action. “It doesn’t concern me one bit. I’m anxious to see his stand-up routine,” Shelton had said. The doctor himself joked as he got into his wheelchair, “If my face turns the color of these (blue) scrubs, its bad!”


The operation was a success and Dr. Rummel hasn’t looked back since.

“When you’re disabled, so much of who you were is taken away from you,” he says. “When I’m able to do this and I love to do this and I can get that piece of my life back, it’s huge. It’s huge. It’s so special.”

Dr. Rummel sure is special. His story is truly inspirational – how he didn’t let his disability stop him from doing the things he cares about.

Source: Make Medicine Better via N.Y. Daily News

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