Rob Summers follows path to recovery and awareness

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Reeve Foundation CEO Peter Wilderotter watches as David Pierson, 35, of Oak Hills and Rob Summers of Beaverton, introduce each other before a reception hosted by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation at Portland Center Stage Theater at the Armory. After their son’s accident in 2006, Jean and Mike Summers were told to turn their basement into an apartment — that was where the 20-year-old would be spending the rest of his life, doctors said.

It was a huge blow to the Beaverton couple, who were preparing to see Rob off to a promising junior year pitching for Oregon State University. But a hit and run had left Rob immobilized in his own driveway for hours the previous July, paralyzing him from the neck down with a C6 spinal cord injury.

“They wanted me to put an apartment down there, make a handicap bathroom, make it all handicap-accessible,” Mike recalled. “They said he’d be medicated, live there the rest of his life. I said, ‘No he’s not. We’re gonna find a vehicle to make him better.’”

Rob, too, resisted the prognosis. After doing rehabilitation with the now-defunct Project Walk, he found the Neural Recovery Network.

“I was drawn to their exercise-based therapy program,” Rob explained. “Having an athletic background, I felt that it really fit my personality, my work ethic, and just kind of my mentality.”

That was his in with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, once helmed by the late actor, who suffered a traumatic spinal cord injury as the result of a fall while horseback riding in TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Beaverton native Rob Summers speaks to guests during a reception hosted by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation before Friday night's performance of 'Somewhere in Time.' Summers serves as an ambassador for the foundation.

What began in 1982 as the Henry Stifel Foundation attracted Reeve soon after his accident, according to the foundation’s chief executive officer and president Peter Wilderotter.

“Chris liked our collaborative approach,” he said of the actor, explaining that the foundation’s focus has been to encourage greater communication and cooperation between researchers.

And it was through the foundation that Rob found out about epidural stimulation, an experimental approach to treating spinal cord injury. It is based in part on the theory that the spinal cord has something like memory, even after a dramatic injury, Wilderotter explained.

“It uses electronic stimulation, which is harmonious with the mind, spinal cord and body,” Rob said. “And the spinal cord and brain are basically nothing more than electrons and neurons, sending signals back and forth.”

The treatment consists of introducing electrical currents to the lower spinal cord to stimulate muscle movement. To date, epidural stimulation has only been approved to treat five people. Rob was the first.

“I looked at the risk/reward ratio, which was a 4 percent chance of risk, versus 50/50 of something happening. There were a lot of unknowns at that point of what the potential really was,” Rob explained. “So I said, ‘Even if there’s a one-in-a-million chance of something happening, I’m in. I’ll do it.’”

He regained sensation almost immediately, and describes the pain as more of a discomfort — “Like lying on a remote.”

After the treatment in 2009, and with a demanding daily regimen of exercise and physical therapy, Rob began to make significant gains — like being able to stand independently.

“I can take steps,” Rob said. “I can move my toes, ankles, knees, hips. I can kick my legs on command. More recently, I’ve been able to do mini-squats where I go down a 45-degree angle and back up.”

He can also do full sit-ups and has seen the return of full bowel and bladder function, sexual function and temperature control — what he calls “quality of life” factors.

On a daily basis, Rob stands for an hour, then spends an hour doing voluntary movement in his toes, ankles, knees and hips. He either swims for an hour or trains with weights.

Rob is currently based in Louisville, Ky., where he continues to undergo treatment. Meanwhile, he’s pursuing a career in another of his passions — real estate — while using motivational speaking as a podium to act as ambassador for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.

For Rob, it’s about raising awareness.

“It still amazes me that one in 50 Americans today lives in paralysis — that’s more than 6.5 million people,” he said. “Yet on a day-to-day basis, you don’t see any of those people out and about in town, because of self-esteem, confidence, inaccessibility to certain venues. I wanted to raise awareness to change that and allow people to have a better quality of life today, while we focus collaboratively on moving the cure forward.”

Rob spoke of his work for the foundation during a Friday reception at the Armory, where Portland Center Stage presented a new musical version of the film “Somewhere in Time,” the 1980 time-tripping romance which served as Reeve’s opportunity to break away from type-casting after his success in 1978’s “Superman.” The musical had its premiere in Portland — an event which Wilderotter described as “serendipity.”

“(The musical) is a story about a moment in time, which is what this injury is about,” he explained. “It’s about what one does after” a life-altering moment.

Rob plans to return to Portland in August, after he finishes his course of therapy in Louisville. by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Reeve Foundation CEO Peter Wilderotter introduces Beaverton native Rob Summers at a reception that was hosted by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation at Portland Center Stage Theater at the Armory.

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