A Paralyzed Surgeon Learns To Operate Again Using A Stand-Up Wheelchair – This Will Leave You Speechless

On a clear December morning Dr. Ted Rummel stood up to perform a surgery for the first time in more than two years.

The operation on the patient’s shoulder was uneventful. The whole thing took just over an hour. Afterward, Rummel bought pizzas for the hospital staff and took his team out for a happy hour celebration.

“I’m back. I’m back,” he kept telling them.

Thousands of people in St. Charles County have enjoyed relief from joint pain and stiffness since Rummel fixed their shoulders, wrists or ankles. He can’t go anywhere without running into a patient, and he loves it.

At his peak, the orthopedic surgeon at Progress West HealthCare Center in O’Fallon performed six to eight shoulder surgeries each week. The last one Rummel did was a rotator cuff surgery for his wife, Kathy, on Sept. 9, 2010. A week later, his back started hurting. Then came numbness and weakness in his legs. Within days, as he describes it, a wave crashed over his lower body and took all feeling and mobility with it. He was paralyzed from the waist down.

A cavernous hemangioma, or blood-filled cyst, had burst in the middle of Rummel’s spinal cord. The cyst probably had been there since birth. Rummel had learned of it 11 months earlier after first experiencing back pain. Neurologists said surgery to remove the cyst would paralyze him instantly. His other choice was to wait, scale back his activity level and hope it never ruptured. When it did, he was 51.

The rehabilitation was complicated. Rummel developed a blood clot in his lung and several serious infections. The first day he was home alone in the couple’s house on the Winghaven golf course, he got stuck for hours on the lift that carries him from the laundry room to the garage. The doctor had gone from skiing, hiking, golfing or biking daily to toting a portable ramp in the minivan so he could wheel himself into buildings and houses.

A Missouri surgeon paralyzed in 2010 is continuing to operate on his patients — from a stand-up wheelchair.

Dr. Ted Rummel thought his career was over after a blood-filled cyst on his spine burst, leaving him unable to move any part of his body below the waist.

But after a year of intense rehab, the orthopedic surgeon was back at work, once again weaving his magic.

“When I’m able to do this and I can get a piece of my life back, it’s huge,” he told the Make Medicine Better blog, adding: “It’s so special.”

Rummel, who practiced more than 1,000 surgeries per year in O’Fallon, revealed he was first diagnosed with a cavernous hemangioma — a blood-filled sac — on his spine in 2009.

In September 2010, it ruptured and the surgery left him numb from below the waist.

“One of my first thoughts was, ‘Oh my gosh, my life as I know it was erased,'” he said. “Who you are out of the O.R. is gone and you have to redefine yourself.”

But he soon realized he could get back to work — so fought himself back to fitness until he was ready to operate again.

From his wheelchair, Rummel started operating again on patients’ hands, elbows, feet, ankles and knees. During his first operation, another surgeon waited nearby to assist if necessary. It wasn’t.

“Very quickly it was apparent his skills were still there,” said Ann Abad, a vice president at Progress West.


Still, it wasn’t enough. Rummel couldn’t do his favorite surgeries, those on the shoulder joint, because the patients had to be placed in sitting positions. Rummel couldn’t reach them from his wheelchair. And then he found a way — a stand-up wheelchair.

Stand-up wheelchairs can help improve circulation, reduce pressure sores and prevent urinary tract infections. They also help people with disabilities reach the top shelf, change a light bulb or operate on shoulders.

Rummel’s customized standing wheelchair has a seat belt and a chest strap to keep him in place. Padded supports for the knees help support his weight. The control pad that moves the chair is installed on the back to keep the surgical field sterile. A roving nurse maneuvers the chair in the operating room. BJC HealthCare, which owns Progress West, approved the chair’s purchase for around $35,000.

“When you’re disabled, so much of who you were is taken away from you,” Rummel said. “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.”

After months of adjustments and test runs, the chair was ready for use earlier this month. The first patient, Dave Shelton of Foristell, was eager to get on the operating table. Bones in his shoulder joint were rubbing together from overuse, causing him pain for the last year. Shelton knew Rummel because the doctor operated on Shelton’s wife, Joan, before Rummel was paralyzed. Shelton had no qualms about the doctor performing surgery from the new wheelchair.

“It doesn’t concern me a bit. I’m anxious to see his stand-up routine,” Shelton said with a laugh.

Representatives from the wheelchair company were on hand to help with any last-minute glitches.

“If my face turns the color of these (blue) scrubs, it’s bad,” the doctor joked.

Kathy Rummel came to the hospital to see him off into surgery. When he was all strapped in, she walked up and gave him a hug. As he stood tall again, he asked her, “It’s just like you remember, right? Looking up?”

Then Rummel turned and rolled down the hallway to the operating room. As he passed through a doorway, he reached up and touched the top of the frame with the palm of his hand, just because he could.