On a fall Saturday afternoon in 1974, Texas Christian University halfback Kent Waldrep jogged onto Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. for a football game with the nationally ranked Crimson Tide. Forty-five minutes later his life was shattered by a violent tackle that damaged his spine and left him almost totally paralyzed. Despite the grim prognosis given by his doctors, Waldrep held onto hope for a cure, and after four years be traveled to Leningrad to try the latest Russian treatments for spinal cord injuries. The odyssey miffed a skeptical American medical community, but it convinced the improved Waldrep that the U.S. approach to spine damage was too narrow in scope and even psychologically harmful for the victim. To spur research on behalf of 500,000 similarly injured Americans, Waldrep founded the International Spinal Cord Research Foundation in 1979. Now 27, he drives daily to his foundation’s Dallas office from nearby Grand Prairie, Texas, where be lives with wife Lynn, a former TV reporter who met him while filming a story about his ordeal. In a conversation with PEOPLE’S Kent Demaret, the onetime college athlete spoke about his injury and his eventual triumph.
When I replay those few seconds in my mind, as I often do late at night, I remember them as if the entire agonizing sequence had been engineered in slow motion. The score was 7-0, Alabama, with five and a half minutes left in the first half. The play came in from our bench: red right power 28. It meant I was to get the ball on a sweep around our right end. I remember feeling the shape and slippery sensation of the football as our quarterback tucked it firmly in my hands. It soon became apparent that the Alabama defenders had diagnosed the play well and reacted quickly, so my decision was to lower my shoulder and try to gain as many yards as I could muscle. The defensive corner hit me, then the strong safety and finally the linebacker. As we neared the sidelines, I was suddenly airborne, propelled by the force of a cut-block thrown to the back of my legs. The next thing I remember is the turf coming at me and then a sensation that will always be with me. At the moment my head hit the artificial turf, I sensed I was upside down and then slowly floating to a horizontal position. Then there was nothing. It was as if my head had been amputated from the rest of my body. In a matter of seconds, years of physical conditioning that had rewarded me with a muscular six-foot, 190-pound frame seemed all but useless as my body reacted to the trauma caused by my bruised spinal cord.
In the months of hospitalization that followed, I began to realize more and more the devastating effects of the injury I had suffered. I lost 35 pounds in the first month and almost died from pneumonia. I saw the torment and helplessness on the faces of my parents as their eyes surveyed my motionless body strapped in a special bed, my head and neck held firmly in place by metal tongs screwed into my skull. There were many sleepless nights. I would lie there and try to move just one toe or just one finger. One day a physical therapist raised my leg while exercising it. I suddenly realized that she might as well have been exercising a dead tree limb. I felt as if my body ended at my shoulders.
The physical devastation was visible, but my psychological battle was something no one else could see or help. It really began when I was transferred to a rehabilitation center. There I was subjected to the routine programming almost every spinal cord victim experiences. I was told my condition was hopeless, that I was permanently paralyzed and that I should give up any thought of ever walking again. My questions about research efforts were met with a blunt, robotlike response: “There is no cure.”
America hadn’t given up on cancer or muscular dystrophy or heart disease, but now the prevailing philosophy seemed to be that my accommodation to a wheelchair was to be expected. The word “cure” was a four-letter word of another sort. That didn’t make sense to me. I knew that diseases were incredibly complex, but scientists tackle and conquer them every day. A spinal cord injury, by comparison, is a “mechanical” thing. Certainly there are thousands of nerves that can be damaged, but I couldn’t get away from the profound feeling that there could be a solution if the scientists just worked hard enough. I decided to search out all avenues of research.
I came across information regarding work in the Soviet Union in which patients were given experimental enzyme treatments to dissolve spinal scar tissue and put in special chambers to breathe high-pressure oxygen. After more than two years of communications with the Soviet physicians and a fellow Texan, House Majority Leader Jim Wright, I was finally accepted for treatment in October 1978. My two-month stay at Leningrad’s Polenov Neurosurgery Research Institute resulted in substantial improvement in my arm and hand function, along with return of sensation to my lower body and increased bladder control.
I was by no means cured. But now I have feeling throughout my body. I don’t have any movement in my legs, but I do in my arms. Some of it has been the result of rehabilitation, I know, and I still work with small weights whenever I can. But some of it was the treatment. The spinal cord, I’m convinced, can regenerate itself to a certain degree, and the treatment helped that along.
My trip to Russia stirred quite a controversy in this country’s medical community. I was labeled a carrier of false hope, and the Soviet approach was discredited by many members of the medical establishment. This despite the fact that two other Americans receiving the same treatment also improved substantially. If doctors in this country had stopped to listen, they would have realized that the message I was bringing back was not that Soviet technology is superior to ours but that their attitude toward this injury is to stress the positive and not impose limitations on someone’s future.
A spinal cord injury doesn’t simply mean one is unable to walk. Depending on the injury, everyday functions the able-bodied person takes for granted become monumental tasks—brushing your teeth, getting dressed, picking up a phone, changing the TV channel. Add to that any number of complications such as bedsores, loss of kidney and bladder function, loss of bowel control, impaired circulation and respiration, impaired sexual function, and you don’t paint a rosy picture for any spinal cord injured person to accept and live with. It’s no wonder that suicide ranks as a major cause of death among the chronically injured.
The United States has the technology, the facilities and the scientific expertise to conquer the problem of regeneration in the central nervous system. But to do so effectively, we must commit ourselves to a prolonged, multidisciplinary approach utilizing a broad spectrum of research. With this thought in mind, I set up the International Spinal Cord Research Foundation. I guess you could say it was the athlete in me accepting a new challenge, driving me to do more than just trying to improve my own physical condition. The foundation’s goal is to expand support for cure research and to implant hope, motivation and dignity in the lives of the injured.
My life has taken a very positive direction since my injury, even though there have been circumstances that tested my faith. I still have day-to-day pains from sitting in the wheelchair—a burning, stinging numbness that sets in after a while. But I don’t mind it that much. At least I can feel something. And I’m not helpless. I drive myself around in a van that has a hydraulic lift to take me and my chair, and the hand controls have become second nature to me. I’m lucky compared to some people with this type of injury, and the way I have to be now is just a damned inconvenience. You don’t accept the transition of going from athlete to wheelchair in a matter of days, months or even years. I accept the reality of my situation finally, but I’m working toward making today’s hopes tomorrow’s realities.