Fort Leavenworth officer goes from quadriplegic to triathlete
Leavenworth It's been three years since a traffic accident left U.S. Army Maj. Ron Upton a quadriplegic.
Last month, he ran a marathon. On May 20, he will compete in a triathlon.
A miracle? If so, it was one that came only through hard work, determination and pain.
"We're not in the Old Testament," Upton, 35, said during a recent interview at his Leavenworth home. "You don't just get up out of a chair."
Upton, who is attending Fort Leavenworth's Command and General Staff College, ran in last month's Spirit of St. Louis Marathon.
During that race, he twice passed the scene of an accident that took place Jan. 25, 2004. Upton, then stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., his wife, Pam, and several friends had gone to St. Louis to watch a St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars hockey game.
Upton got up early the morning after the game and took a taxi to buy shaving supplies. It was icy and the cab went out of control and crashed into the side of a building.
Upton has little memory of the accident. He does remember that the cab driver, a man with a heavy foreign accent, had difficulty making a 911 dispatcher understand him. The driver reached over the seat and tried to hand the cell phone to Upton.
"I couldn't reach for the phone," Upton said. "Then I lost consciousness."
Long road to recovery
"When you are paralyzed, it's unlike anything I can ever describe in words," Upton said. "It's really strange, the absence of feeling."
Upton woke up in St. Louis University Hospital. Two of his cervical vertebrae were dislocated and lodged side-by-side, turning him into a quadriplegic. He couldn't move below his shoulders. Doctors told Upton and his wife he would never walk again.
Pam Upton thinks she went into shock.
"I didn't break down and cry immediately," she said. "I think I went into what I call my 'Army wife mode.' It was 'OK, what do we need now? Where do we go, and what do I need to do?'"
Doctors put a "halo" on Upton's head and screwed it into place. He was placed in traction, and a pulley system was used to try to force his spinal column back into place. While he was in traction, his neck was stretched, breaking ligaments in the process. Doctors ultimately had to manually put the vertebrae back in place. He had surgery to fuse the vertebrae. Eight screws and two rods were put into his neck. He spent several days in traction.
Power of thought
Unable to move, Upton spent his time -- hour after hour -- thinking about trying to move his toes. Just before Upton was moved to the Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis, Pam Upton saw movement in one of her husband's big toes.
"It wasn't much. Just a little twitch," she said.
"I think when that happened, it was just enough motivation to keep me going," Ron Upton said.
Upton received other motivations and support, including a visit from Patrick Rummerfield, a one-time quadriplegic who learned to walk and run during a 17-year recovery process. It was Rummerfield -- who competed in a triathlon to complete his recovery -- who spurred Upton to think about running a marathon.
In April 2004, Upton left the rehab unit and returned home. He spent the next three years slowly recovering and learning how to walk and then run.
Upton finished the Spirit of St. Louis Marathon with a time of four hours, 12 minutes and 48 seconds. At one point during the race, when he was running by himself, emotions welled up. He cried.
"I was able to get that out of my system, pull it together and go strong at the finish," he said.
Deployment this summer
Later this month, Upton will run, swim and bike in a triathlon in Olathe. In June, he will graduate from the Command and General Staff College. He will move to Fort Hood, Texas, where he will coordinate military police resources in the Fourth Infantry Division. By the end of summer he will deploy to Iraq.
A 12-year Army veteran, Upton says he has no hesitation about going to war, other than he hates to leave his wife and 15-month-old daughter.
"Being a soldier is not what I do, it's who I am," he said. "It's not a job, it's a way of life for me."
Pam Upton understands why her husband continues to serve in the Army even if it means going to war.
"This is part of what he recovered for," she said.