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Changing Lives
An accident took away Ed Eckenhoff’s athletic dreams but made him use his mind to lead a full life and help others. By John Pekkanen
Comments () | Published December 1, 2009
Photograph by Matthew Worden.

“There is something about a disability that wakes us up,” says Ed Eckenhoff. “I don’t know whether we begin overcompensating or we realize we have fewer options for success. I do know it made me rethink my future, and I have observed this with a lot of people who suffered disabilities.”

Eckenhoff—who recently retired as head of National Rehabilitation Hospital—grew up in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where he enjoyed life as a middling student and outstanding athlete. Tall, strong, one of four brothers, he played fullback on the Swarthmore High School football team, played tennis, and captained the track team.

After high school, each of the Eckenhoff sons was encouraged to spend a year in Europe. Ed chose the University of Munich, where he studied two things he loves to this day: art and piano. He returned from Germany to enter Kentucky’s Transylvania University, the small liberal-arts school that his father—an anesthesiologist who became dean of Northwestern’s medical school and later president of Northwestern University’s medical center—had attended.

Eckenhoff played on the college tennis team and dabbled in academics. In 1963, at age 20, while he was riding in the passenger seat of his roommate’s MG, his life changed when the sports car crashed, throwing him from the vehicle. He landed on his back and was paralyzed from the waist down. His roommate died.

Eckenhoff returned to college the next year, outfitted with leg braces and crutches and transformed from a happy-go-lucky jock into a serious student who got onto what he calls the “right” dean’s list.

After graduation, still unsure of what to do with his life, he went to the University of Kentucky for a master’s in education and psychology and counseled disadvantaged children in Kentucky’s Fayette County. He then enrolled in the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and earned a master’s in health-care administration. From 1974 to 1982, he worked at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where he became vice president of administration.

Seeing a need in the Washington area, in 1984 he founded National Rehabilitation Hospital, whose inpatient services are headquartered in DC. He served as president and CEO until his retirement in October at age 66.

Eckenhoff oversaw the hospital’s growth and the establishment of 40 outpatient rehabilitation sites in the area. In the years of his leadership, NRH has grown into an internationally recognized rehabilitation hospital that has admitted nearly 40,000 inpatients and had more than 2 million outpatient visits. U.S. News consistently rates it as one of America’s best hospitals.

Eckenhoff’s tenure also saw the development of a major research endeavor, the Christoph Ruesch Research Center at NRH. He helped forge an academic relationship with Georgetown University Hospital and a clinical relationship with the National Institutes of Health. He extended NRH’s research arm to develop a relationship with the military in seeking better ways to rehabilitate soldiers with major disabilities such as traumatic brain and spinal-cord injuries as well as amputations.

Eckenhoff has been a tireless advocate for the disabled. He received the Citation of a Layman for Distinguished Service, the highest award given to non-physicians by the American Medical Association.

In 2007, following the disclosure of substandard conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, President Bush appointed Eckenhoff to the Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors, chaired by former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and former US senator Bob Dole. The commission was charged with evaluating rehabilitation programs and services and making recommendations to improve care for injured soldiers and their families. To Eckenhoff’s disappointment, most of its recommendations have yet to be implemented.

Eckenhoff lives in an apartment on DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue with his wife, Judi, whom he met in Illinois and married in 1977. Despite his disability, Eckenhoff never lost his athletic competitiveness and for years has been an avid golfer who swings with one arm and uses the other to hold his crutch and balance himself.

You seem to be saying your disability helped make you successful.

My experience and that of others have shown that many people who accept their disability have risen to greater heights than they would have if they had not had the disability. Because of how the accident changed me, I’ve led a purposeful and fulfilling life. I’m not sure this would have been true if I had not suffered my injury.

Who has been inspirational to you?

There are thousands of people. I’m on the patient floors much of the time, and I’ve gotten to know many people who’ve overcome incredible disabilities. Many of our NRH team members are disabled, and I’ve found their stories inspiring.

When I served on the Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors, I went to Walter Reed and met soldiers and family members. When I spoke with these soldiers who had became disabled by IED blasts, they told me they wanted to return to Iraq to serve. I found it incredibly inspiring to witness their courage.

When you had your accident, spinal-cord injuries were considered irreversible. That’s not the case now, is it?

No, thankfully it is not. We’ve made a lot of strides in the early treatment of spinal-cord injuries. We know now that giving methylprednisolone, a steroid that reduces inflammation, to someone right after a spinal injury can preserve an increased degree of function. In some cases there have been reversals of spinal-cord injuries. A player for the Buffalo Bills, Kevin Everett, had a spinal-cord injury while playing football. His spine was cooled, and he was given methylprednisolone right after the injury. He has made a remarkable recovery and is walking again.

The one area that might hold the most promise for people with spinal-cord injuries is stem-cell research. I think in time it will make an enormous difference in spinal-cord and perhaps brain injuries.

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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 12/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles