Quadriplegic will run marathon

Published: October 9, 2004
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Alan Robinson will be one of the last runners to cross the finish line in Sunday’s LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon.

When he ran last year, it took him more than six hours to finish 31,309th out of 32,455 finishers.

It nevertheless was an extraordinary achievement. Robinson, 51, is a quadriplegic who 13 years ago woke up from a car accident paralyzed from the neck down.

“It is unusual that a quadriplegic can walk or even consider any running activity,” said his doctor, Dr. David Chen of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

On March 11, 1991, Robinson got in his car to pick a friend up from work. He was running late and driving way too fast. He also was high on alcohol and cocaine and wasn’t using a seat belt.

He was going at least 60 mph when he lost control, hit three light poles and smashed into a viaduct on the South Side. Rescue workers had to cut him out of the car.

There’s a common misconception that Quadriplegia is caused by a severing of the spinal cord. But what usually happens in a paralyzing neck injury is severe bruising or compression of the nerves.

Spinal cord nerves don’t regrow, but they can heal to an extent. Each injury is different. When the damage is complete, there’s little hope of retaining movement. But Robinson has what’s known as incomplete quadriplegia. Some of the nerve messages still can get through.

At first, though, he couldn’t move anything. He was mad at himself and angry at God. “I felt despair.”

Doctors put Robinson in a halo device to immobilize his head and neck and prevent further damage to his spinal cord. His roommates called him Halo Man. “They looked at me like I was Frankenstein,” he said.

About three weeks after the accident, Robinson’s roommate put on some music. Robinson heard an old favorite, “You’re My Everything,” by the Temptations, and imagined he was dancing.

“I was moving in my mind, and all of a sudden my right leg moved,” he said. “I knew then that whenever I went to my therapy, I would give 100 percent.”

Gradually, movement returned to other parts — his left foot, his wrist, his arm, his fingers. In three months, he was walking with crutches. When the hospital released him, he refused to leave in a wheelchair.

Robinson, who’s on Disability, remains partially paralyzed. He limps on his right leg after he has been sitting awhile. When it’s cold and rainy, he gets stiff and has difficulty moving. And he has little movement in his right hand. There’s full movement on his left side, but that side has reduced sensation to heat, cold and pain.

Four years ago, Robinson resolved that he would run again. At first, his goal was just to be able to catch the bus. He had a lopsided gait, like a wobbling duck. With therapy, he has straightened his gait, but he still can’t run fast.

He completed a 10K run in 2000 and a half-marathon in 2002. He did his first marathon last year. His goal was to finish in less than seven hours, before they took down the finish line.

On the last leg, when he knew he would finish in time, “each step was like I was in the Olympics. When I finally crossed the finish line and looked at my clock, I was so happy, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t care how I felt; I just knew I had finished the marathon.”

Earlier this year, Robinson ran in the Boston Marathon’s mobility Impairment division. After the Chicago marathon, he’d like to run from Chicago to Moline, averaging 25 miles a day. He dreams about running across the country to raise money for hospitals and churches.

He has picked up a few corporate sponsors. In the Chicago marathon, he’s one of 26 runners sponsored by Saucony, a shoe company. And he has a free membership at Bally’s Hyde Park health club, where he spends up to five hours a day on the stair stepper. He also runs 30 or 40 miles a week.

While Robinson’s story is inspiring, it’s not typical, said Mercedes Rauen of the Spinal Cord Injury Association of Illinois. A patient who has complete quadriplegia could not accomplish what Robinson has done, no matter how determined.

“It’s important that people not get the impression that whatever Alan did, they could, too,” Rauen said. “You can’t will to make it happen.”

The good news is that more spinal cord patients are, like Robinson, retaining some ability to move, Chen said, because rescue workers and hospitals are doing a better job of stabilizing patients to reduce further nerve damage.

Whatever the injury, Robinson said, patients shouldn’t give in to despair.

“Life is a recovery program,” he said. “Never give up hope.”

BY JIM RITTER Health Reporter
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