SCI Superstar: Rob Summers


In an alternate universe, Rob Summers would’ve been playing a major league baseball right now. Most likely practicing as we speak. That was where his life was headed. After turning down the MLB draft in high school and wanting to go to college first, he helped Oregon State University win the College World Series.

And in 2006 he was ready to move onto the next phase of his life – major league baseball. But a hit and run accident on July 21st, 2006 changed everything in an instant, breaking his neck and paralyzing him from the chest down. Baseball was no longer in the cards, but Rob Summers wasn’t about to accept his injury as permanent, even if he would never again be able to compete in baseball at a competitive level.

Here’s how Rob Summers made history by becoming the first person to receive a groundbreaking spinal cord electrical stimulation implant.

Why he’s fearless

When Rob Summers’ injury occurred, which was a crazy hit-and-run that happened when he was standing by his vehicle, Rob Summers was wholly determined to prove his doctors wrong.  While we all work hard in rehab to get better, Rob Summers definitely wasn’t the average SCI patient.

His determination to get better combined with his youth and still-healthy body made him the perfect candidate for a number of spinal cord injury research studies. And in 2009, Rob Summers decided he wanted to undergo a 16 electrode implant surgery, in which various electrodes would stimulate parts of his lower spinal cord, bypassing the need for signals from the brain, and helping him stand up with the help of a walker.

The amazing procedure was done by UCLA neuroscientist Reggie Edgerton, who’s has been studying the effects of electrical impulses on the spinal cord since the 1990s, and the theory goes – with some electrical stimulation assistance, the spinal cord can figure out signals just as well as the brain can, thereby bypassing the injury site.

Within three days, Rob Summers was able to stand up by himself.  He still is unable to walk using the stimulation devices, but he can stand and has received sensation return in the way of his bowel and bladder, his lower extremities and sexual function.  And what’s really cool is that the return of sensation was not something they expected.  They expected voluntary movement control only. This just proves how little doctors know about the spinal cord.

What’s next?

A couple of years ago, Rob Summers decided to partner with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, and he’s been heavily active in various aspects of the organization.

Last year, he helped coach new peer mentors for the organization in San Francisco (a great program to help out newly injured people), and last month he spoke at a Reeve Foundation event in Portland, Oregon – Somewhere In Time – to introduce a play based on this famous Christopher Reeve time traveling movie with Jane Seymour (hopefully all went well and no one looked at the change in their pockets). And Rob Summers recently became a motivational speaker. Watch him speak

Rob Summers’s youthful exuberance to work as hard as possible to walk again, to even be a Guinea pig for new procedures, is what the spinal cord injury community needs. He may not be fully walking, but he can stand 1 and 1/2 hours aday, and he’s busy filling his life with immense positivity living in sunny LA with his girlfriend. Rob’s life is still awesome, just in a different way.

The injury may have put a wrench in his life plans, but what Rob Summers has done post-injury shows how a true fighter carries on.

Visit Rob Summers’ site

Read more about Reggie Edgerton’s study from Popular Mechanics

Would you be willing to be a guinea pig for a new procedure?

Watch the videos!

Rob Summers speaking at a NIBIB, the scientists who helped invent the electrode implants

Rob Summers and the neurosurgeon behind the surgery discuss if his movement comes from his brain signals

Buick highlights Rob Summers’s story in their “Human Highlight Reel”

Rob Summers’s PSA for the Reeve Foundation

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