Paralyzed in car crash, millionaire puts up $1 million for more research so he and others may walk again
On the last day Tim Reynolds could walk, he stood outside a chic Manhattan restaurant, hailing a cab. It was a December evening, and he was celebrating the holidays with employees of the Wall Street firm he had co-founded the year before.
The driver of a car service spotted Reynolds sometime after 11 p.m. and offered to take him home to New Jersey. Exhausted, Reynolds got in, stretched out across the back seat of the Lincoln Town Car and closed his eyes.
He awakened as the car crashed into the median on the Pulaski Skyway — and his life forever changed.
Reynolds said the driver had fallen asleep and lost control.
“I yelled, ‘Wake up! You have to move the car!” Reynolds recalled. Then a sports car rear-ended them so violently glass spread like buckshot. Reynolds was pinned against a door, paralyzed, his ribs broken and his lungs bleeding.
Six years later, Reynolds, now 40, remains paralyzed from the waist down. During those years his fledgling trading firm, Jane Street Capital, has grown to 120 employees, with offices in London, Tokyo and Chicago.
Reynolds is now using his financial success to find a cure for spinal cord injury and has donated $1 million to establish a research laboratory at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark.
The Tim Reynolds Family Spinal Cord Injury Center opens today and will be directed by Robert Heary, the neurosurgeon who rebuilt the crushed bones of Reynolds’ spinal column at Newark’s University Hospital shortly after the accident.
The lab opens at a time when a cure for spinal cord injury remains elusive, but tantalizing research invigorates the field. It will focus on the toughest cases: people with long-term injuries.
“This is a solvable problem,” Reynolds said recently in Monmouth County, where 10-foot windows open to the Navesink River in the home he shares with his wife, Caroline, and their three children.
The former floor trader is a financial whiz who orchestrated crucial trade orders from the emergency room just hours after he was paralyzed. Colleagues say he has continued to spur growth of the company, and each workday, a friend drives him to the ferry that takes him through Raritan Bay to lower Manhattan.
“When Tim sees a goal, he goes after it,” said Sandor Lehoczky, a managing director of Jane Street Capital. “Very soon you don’t see the wheelchair.”
Reynolds’ donation gives Heary the opportunity to connect patient care with basic research. The money comes with no strings attached — unlike most government and industry funding — so the lab can jump quickly on promising leads. The doctor also is seeking grants from other sources.
Heary said the new facility will investigate methods to stabilize or realign the spinal column with rods or screws. Other research will focus on regenerating nerves, the critical step to help spinal-cord-injured people walk again.
“The goal is to get the messages from nerves above the injury to nerves below the site of injury,” said Heary, who also directs the Spine Center of New Jersey at the New Jersey Medical School.
Experiments on rats will focus on chemicals that inhibit nerve Regeneration, and on efforts to block those inhibitors.
Heary also will collaborate with the New Jersey Institute of Technology to develop “scaffolding” to direct nerve growth, similar to how ivy grows on a trellis. The scaffolding will be made from synthetic tissue.
Another avenue is stem cells, both adult and controversial embryonic stem cells. Heary said researchers already can grow neural structures in the laboratory with stem cells. Both types of cells will be used to find ways to grow nerves either through, or around, the site of injury.
Heary wants the lab’s work to focus on the chronically injured, since most research has gone toward the newly injured.
“There’s been an air of skepticism with respect to these people, that they will ever regain movement or sensation,” Heary said. “It’s been an area of diminished effort. But we think there is room for improvement.”
Experts say the field of spinal cord injury is ripe for breakthroughs.
“The era of regenerative medicine is with us now,” said Michael Fehlings, a researcher at the University of Toronto who is testing a protein that strikes at a key factor blocking the regeneration of nerve fibers.
“A number of things are coming out of the pipeline. That was not the case three or four years ago,” said Susan Howley, director of research at The Christopher Reeve Foundation in Short Hills.
It’s the people themselves who keep Heary working for a cure. His patients include a 19-year-old man paralyzed while wrestling with a friend; a 35-year-old police officer assaulted in the line of duty; and a 39-year-old woman injured by a spinal infection following gall bladder surgery.
Reynolds, at his home one recent evening, said he thinks a lot about the 250,000 people in the nation with spinal cord injury. Few have his resources.
“We spend all this money to keep people alive in dark apartments watching television or in assisted living centers,” Reynolds said. “But not enough is being done to help cure their injuries.”
He disputes the notion that he had a charmed life before the accident.
“I have a charmed life,” he says just before his wife carries over his daughter, Chloe, to kiss her father good-night. On weekends he rides a hand-bike in the park while 9-year-old Max pedals alongside. In summer, he swims in the family pool. The family travels frequently, and is planning an African safari.
“We didn’t stop and say, ‘This is horrible,'” said Caroline, his wife, who had given birth to their third child just three months before the accident. “We focused on what we had to do to get our lives back to normal.”
Despite his remarkable adaptation after the accident, Reynolds wants to walk again. He often asks friends how it would feel to flap their arms and suddenly soar through the clouds.
“That would be thrilling, right?” he asked. “For me, it would be just as thrilling to walk through the woods — to feel the grass under my feet, or to step out the front door and get the mail.”
Reynolds said he believes he will walk someday. But he doubts any of his friends will ever fly.
BY CAROL ANN CAMPBELL
Carol Ann Campbell covers medicine. She may be reached at (973) 392-4148.