Written by Karen Gellender: firstname.lastname@example.org Friday, 20 April 2012 00:00
When Syosset High School junior Brian Pinkow was told that he would never walk again after a devastating car accident that severed his spine, he took the prognosis with a grain of salt. Fifteen years later, he may not be walking yet, but to say he’s remained physically active would be the understatement of the year: he plays wheelchair basketball, practices mixed martial arts, swims every day during the summer, and is even preparing to complete a half-marathon in his wheelchair this weekend.
Furthermore, while his doctors may have been adamant 15 years ago that his injury was permanent, recent clinical trials in the field of spinal cord injuries are beginning to indicate that perhaps Pinkow was right to be skeptical about the prospect of spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair: for the 32-year-old Syosset resident, he sees walking again as not a matter of if, but when. All that stands in the way, he feels, is raising enough money to fund new treatments.
“The technology is there, so it’s not really a matter of if but when…the more money we generate, the quicker we can speed things up, and the quicker we can get people out of chairs,” said Pinkow with conviction.
It can be difficult to imagine Pinkow as a football player. The soft-spoken young man, with a charming, shy smile, might seem entirely too nice to have ever been an aggressive pigskin warrior. However, before his injury, Pinkow was one of the most talented high school football players in the area. Two weeks before the accident, he competed at Giants Stadium in an event attended by athletic scouts from all the top colleges.
Pinkow had done well at Giants Stadium and was waiting to hear feedback when his life changed forever one rainy day in May 1997 on Underhill Boulevard in Syosset. On a day Pinkow remembers as otherwise ordinary, the driver of the car Pinkow was riding in hit a puddle, sending the car careening across to the other side of the road as the driver lost control. Pinkow’s side of the car hit a tree, the impact severing his spine.
After a brief stay at North Shore University Hospital Manhasset, Pinkow checked into Kessler Rehabilitation Center in New Jersey, where he did in-patient rehabilitation for two and a half months.
“They teach you everything over from scratch- how to dress, how to eat…everyday activities that you need to lead an independent life,” remembered Pinkow.
After regaining the ability to perform many everyday tasks, Pinkow completed a year and a half of outpatient therapy at Kessler, and later on at Abilities in Albertson. He resumed his studies at Syosset High School that fall, going back and forth to rehab after school. Wanting to stay close to home, he enrolled at Hofstra University after graduation, majoring in liberal arts.
Despite his progress with rehabilitation and in academics, there was still a void in Pinkow’s life that used to be filled by sports, especially football. While at Hofstra, Pinkow was introduced to wheelchair basketball by a friend, and “that was that”: he had found his sport. He still plays basketball today.
As well as Pinkow has adapted to life with a spinal cord injury, he and his parents have always harbored a strong hope that it isn’t permanent. Soon after the car accident, Pinkow’s family, along with several other families who had a son or daughter with a spinal cord injury, worked together to form the Spinal Cord Injury Project (SCIP) at the W.M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience at Rutgers University. All of the money the project raises, $4.5 million to date, goes toward research for a cure.
Pinkow believes that now is an exciting, critical time in the field of spinal cord injury research, thanks in part to the efforts of Dr. Wise Young, founding director of SCIP. Young is currently performing trials in Beijing involving the injection of umbilical cord stem cells and lithium into the spine, in which the lithium acts as a growth agent for the injected cells. Participants in previous trials regained up to two or three levels of function.
For Pinkow, it’s gratifying to see progress in the field, especially because spinal cord injuries were seen as untreatable for so long.
“No one wanted to go there. Scientists were looked down on for doing that kind of research,” remembered Pinkow. Now, with trials using umbilical cord stem cells, as well as many new experimental treatments in development that Pinkow keeps tabs on through his contact with Young, it appears that the science side of the equation is beginning to align with what was once thought to be a vain hope on his part.
“I will walk again: that’s been a belief since day one. More and more so, people are coming to realize that it’s just a matter of time.”
On the subject of stem cell research, Pinkow is quick to point out that the cells being used in the current trials are taken from umbilical cord blood, and are not the embryonic stem cells that are the subject of much ethical debate. However, in general he feels those opposed to stem cell research are probably lacking perspective.
“If those people knew someone, especially if it was themselves, a daughter or a son- I would venture to guess that they would look at the situation a little differently,” he said wryly.
He is also quick to note that while people with spinal cord injuries are a relatively small population in the United States, spinal cord research will also be beneficial to people with a wide range of neurological disorders, like muscular dystrophy and Parkinson’s disease. Even now, Pinkow says, treatments that were originally intended to benefit spinal cord patients are being used to help people with a wide variety of neurological conditions.
On Sunday, April 22, Pinkow will participate in his first half-marathon, the Unite Half Marathon at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He has assembled a team of 40, including five others with spinal cord injuries, to help him raise $25,000 dollars for the Spinal Cord Injury Project. Those interested in helping Pinkow and his team meet their fundraising goal can participate by visiting the team’s page on www.crowdrise.com (search for Brian Pinkow).
To train for the event, Pinkow has been doing 13-mile courses in his wheelchair three times a week. He also uses a hydraulic standing table regularly to keep him upright while he reads or watches TV in order to keep his body used to bearing weight, aid his digestion and circulation, and to help stop his muscles from atrophying. Still, even with all of his training, is he ready to make it all the way to the finish line of a half-marathon?
“As long as the course is flat, I think I’m good. As soon as it starts going uphill, I’m screwed,” mused Pinkow with a smile. He has been assured the course is flat, but after everything he’s already overcome, the smart money is probably on Brian Pinkow completing his race with aplomb, hills or no hills.
For more information about the Spinal Cord Injury Project, visit http://keck.rut gers.edu/SCIP/scip.html.