Commentary

'I just want to be able to walk again'

Rodney Rogers holds out hope for movement after accident leaves him paralyzed

Originally Published: June 14, 2010
By Anna Katherine Clemmons | ESPN.com

APEX, N.C. -- Rodney Rogers drives slowly down the hallway. He veers to the left, then to the right, then pauses after he accidentally bumps into a fellow patient at the WakeMed Rehab Center. The two laugh as Rogers apologizes and maneuvers himself toward the sliding glass doors. The misdirection is understandable: Rogers isn't driving a car but a motorized wheelchair.

And he isn't using his hands, which, like the rest of his paralyzed body, he can no longer move after a dirt bike accident in November of 2008 left him a quadriplegic. Instead, Rogers uses his head -- the only body part he can control -- to tap sensors on his left and right side, indicating the direction he'd like the chair to go.

Rogers wears a Wake Forest basketball jacket (his alma mater) and warm-up pants despite the 77-degree March day because he is usually cold. His broad 6-foot-7 frame, which once earned him the moniker "Durham Bull" for its strength, sits limp in the elevated chair, lacking the muscular definition honed over 12 years of NBA play.

Several nurses, as well as his fiancée, Faye Suggs, walk ahead of and behind him. They assist in loading Rogers into his specially equipped van where, after entering via an electronic ramp, his nurses plug in his endotrachial tube, which emerges from his neck and circles down around his waist. The trach must be kept in at all times for Rogers to breathe.

Simply prepping Rogers to leave the house takes anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, so the group decides to go to the mall after rehab. Their goal is to be home by 5 or 6 p.m. with Rogers in bed by 9 p.m., when he takes his third and final round of medications -- if he can stay awake that long. Despite the fact that he won't have taken a single step, this day will have worn him out completely.

This is life for the man whose passions outside of basketball were always about activity: dirt biking, ATV racing, horseback riding, hunting, playing with his three children, even grilling outside for friends on a hot summer evening in North Carolina. After retiring from the NBA in 2005, Rogers didn't buy a mansion in California or start a line of clothing or cologne.

Instead, he worked for the Durham Public Works Department as a machine operator and founded a trucking business, sometimes waking as early as 3:30 because he loved to be on the road.

[+] EnlargeRodney Rogers
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesRodney Rogers spent 12 seasons in the NBA, winning the Sixth Man of the Year in 2000 for Phoenix before being traded to Boston for Joe Johnson in 2002.

Now, Rogers watches sports on TV and cringes when the scent of barbecued chicken drifts from his neighbor's grill. He still loves to talk basketball and listens to his friends discuss the dirt bikes they continue to ride, even after his accident. Some friends have stopped their visits. His family, with the exception of his two brothers, has cut ties over financial disputes, even though his mother and sister live 20 minutes away.

For Rogers and Suggs, living each day is about believing that he'll walk again. "I hope and pray that in the near future, I'll get my arms back, and then hopefully my legs," Rogers says. "If I had to walk with a cane or something, that'd be fine. I just want to be able to walk again."

Rogers says his fiancée didn't want him to go dirt biking in rural Vance County, about an hour's drive from their Durham, N.C., home, on the morning of his accident. It was the day after Thanksgiving, Nov. 28, 2008, and Suggs' son from a previous relationship, Devonte, had a football game that evening. But Rogers insisted and gave Suggs money to go shopping while he was riding. He said he'd be back in time for dinner and the game.

When Suggs returned home at 5 p.m., Rogers wasn't there. Still, she didn't think anything was wrong until one of his friends called and told Suggs she needed to go to Duke Hospital immediately because Rogers was being taken there.

"After that, I started calling his friends, but a couple of them wouldn't even answer the phone," Suggs says. "When they did, they wouldn't tell me what happened."

Suggs arrived before the ambulance and stood outside, where Rogers' mother and sister were also waiting. When Rogers arrived, still conscious, he saw Suggs. "Please don't be mad at me," he said to her. "I think I broke my neck."

A dirt biking veteran, Rogers wore all the necessary protective gear that afternoon (helmet, knee pads, shoulder pads) -- except for a neck brace. "I'd fallen thousands of times before and could always break my fall," Rogers says. But less than an hour into the ride, when he hit the ditch that catapulted him forward over the handlebars, "I knew I broke my neck as soon as I fell," Rogers says.

Doctors told Rogers he had a 50-50 chance of survival. The next day, they performed intensive surgery, fusing his C3 and C4 (third and fourth cervical) vertebrae. His body continually went into shock from the severity of the injury, as he waited to hear if his movement might return.

Three days later, Rogers was flown to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, one of the nation's leading spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation centers. He and Suggs thought they'd be there for a month. Instead, they stayed three months, spending the first two in the ICU. Rogers had three close calls in the first weeks. "I was there yelling in his ear, 'You better not go; don't do it,'" Suggs says of Rogers' near-death moments. "He made it through, but it was pretty tough."

"I hope and pray that in the near future, I'll get my arms back, and then hopefully my legs. If I had to walk with a cane or something, that'd be fine. I just want to be able to walk again."

-- Rodney Rogers

Dave Odom, the former Wake Forest coach who recruited Rogers, visited him several times in Atlanta. "When I walked into that hospital room for the first time, it was just he and I," Odom remembers. "His eyes were closed. I walked up and put my hand on his shoulder and rubbed it, thinking he'd open his eyes. His eyes didn't open and I realized he couldn't feel me. It was scary. I came face-to-face with the battle that he was facing, and that it was going to take an extraordinary person to get through all of that. … But the one thing I knew about Rodney was that he was not afraid of challenges. I knew he had the mental toughness to do it."

On March 9, 2009, after more than three months at Shepherd, Rogers and Suggs returned to North Carolina. They moved into a modest one-story home in Apex, which they chose for its proximity to the hospital and rehab center as well as to their hometown.

Rogers was born and raised in Durham. He first met Suggs at Hillside High. (She was a senior; he was a freshman.) It wasn't until several years later, at a party thrown by mutual friends, that the two reconnected. "Rodney was married then, so I wasn't supposed to like him, but I liked him," Suggs says, laughing. Their lives intersected for a third time in 2007 when a friend of Suggs, who'd begun seeing a friend of Rogers, suggested the four go on a double date.

Rogers proposed to Suggs on April 3, 2008 -- her birthday. They talked about marriage and, in an eerie coincidence, how they'd stand by one another through anything. "When we got engaged, our very first question to each other was, 'If anything happens to me, are you going to be able to take care of me?'" Suggs says. "Before he put a ring on my finger, that was our question to each other."

Suggs is Rogers' primary caregiver but he also has from one to three nurses monitoring his care 24 hours a day. The day nurse, whose shift lasts from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., enters Rogers' room at 7 a.m. to check his pulse and ventilator. Suggs sleeps in a bed next to Rogers, whose bed rotates and shifts throughout the night to prevent bedsores. The night nurse also checks on him every two hours.

The day nurse returns to his room at 9 a.m. to feed Rogers breakfast, clean the mucus out of his trach and administer his first round of medication and insulin shots. Despite having already given up the fast food that he loves, Rogers recently learned that he's diabetic, so he has curbed his diet even further in trying to lose 10 pounds from his 265-pound frame.

His primary nurse says they limit his carbohydrate intake to less than 65 grams a day. His lunch often consists of greens with low-fat dressing and several pieces of sautéed chicken with barbecue sauce and a Diet Sunkist soda. No bread, no desserts. "That's probably what I miss the most, having fried foods and my pastas from California Pizza Kitchen," Rogers says. "Now I can only ride by those places and look at them."

Between 11 a.m. and noon, two nurses assist Rogers in getting out of bed and bathing. A pulley track runs along the ceiling from the bedroom to the bathroom with a large sling attached that assists the staff in maneuvering Rogers from room to room.

[+] EnlargeRodney Rogers
Courtesy of the Rodney Rogers FoundationAfter a dirt bike accident in November 2008, Rodney Rogers now must rely on others to feed him.

Once he's cleaned up, Rogers and Suggs watch TV or sit together in the living room until 2 p.m., when Rogers has a snack. If they're driving to rehab or running errands, the staff prepares Rogers' necessities for leaving the house, including his C-PAP (continuous positive airway pressure) pack and medications. His wheelchair is almost a hospital bed within itself -- it's constantly beeping and flashing various numbers and vital signs. Nurses massage Rogers' muscles or lift his arms or legs to allow for occasional movement.

"I don't think people understand how crucial his life can still be because he's immobile," Suggs says. "Things can go wrong at any time. It's a day-to-day job to make sure he doesn't get pressure sores, infections, keeping his lungs clear, etc."

Rogers' retired Wake Forest jersey hangs in the family room. He and Suggs plan to add on a memorabilia room at the back of the house to showcase his basketball achievements. They also hope to install voice-activation technology throughout the house so that Rogers will be able to control light switches and electronics.

Suggs had hoped to return to work as a dental assistant at the time, and now if fulfilling that wish. Rogers and Suggs have also begun the Rodney Rogers Foundation, which vice president Darryl Harris says was created for "charitable, scientific, and educational purposes to help families with a paralyzed or wheelchair-bound person in need." Through the Foundation, Rodney will make various speaking appearances, offering motivation and encouragement to those who are paralyzed. Funds raised will go toward providing financial and emotional support to those dealing with paralysis.

The financial burden of being quadriplegic is tremendous, and Rogers and Suggs worry what will happen when his insurance expires. Nursing care alone can cost up to $60,000 a month. Add to that the equipment (his wheelchair costs more than $80,000), medications, rehab, handicapped-equipped transport and other amenities, and their bills are massive.

"People don't understand what comes with being immobile, but we're hoping the new health care will help to cover us," Suggs says. Wake Forest University has set up a trust for Rogers where fans can donate funds.

Doctors have told Rogers that he has a 5 percent chance of walking again. In November, he, Faye and several of his nurses traveled to Germany, his first commercial plane trip since his accident. They flew into Paris and then took a train to Frankfurt so that Rogers could undergo stem cell treatments, in which doctors took stem cells from his bone marrow and injected them into his lower lumbar region.

Rogers says that since he bruised his spinal cord but didn't sever it, the cells have a small chance of regenerating. "They told me it'd be two to six months before they see some sort of change," Rogers says. "I ain't seen any change yet, but I gotta keep praying and working, going to rehab, and we'll see what happens."

Rogers attends rehabilitation sessions for an hour twice a week at the Wake Med Rehab Center in Raleigh. There, SCI fitness coordinator Rebecca Czarnecki and a nurse attach probes to each of Rogers' arms while connecting his hands to pedals that engage his arms in a cyclical motion. The electronic stimulation recruits his muscle fibers as the signal travels from the muscles to his brain.

Often, Rogers' arm muscles spasm, causing the probes to become entangled in his trach, and Czarnecki has to stop the machine to realign the cords. Rogers watches as his arm falls from the machine as though it's on someone else's body. "Shoot, man," he says quietly in frustration. When Czarnecki asks Rogers whether he can feel how tight she's set the bands, Rogers shakes his head. "Sometimes I can feel the motion in my shoulders and a certain part of my arm," he says.

His arms are the only body part Rogers can exercise because his legs are too long for the machine. The therapists talk about the Miami Project's Loco-Mat technology, which allows for paralyzed patients to be kept standing while moving their legs. But the machine's $279,000 price tag is too high for WakeMed to afford. Manager Kathy Thompson says the center sees between 30 and 50 patients a year but few have paralysis as extensive as Rogers.

[+] EnlargeRodney Rogers
Courtesy of the Rodney Rogers FoundationRodney Rogers attends rehab sessions twice a week for an hour, but still hasn't seen much improvement.

Two books sit on Rogers' coffee table in his family room: Christopher Reeve's autobiography "Still Me," which Suggs has read but Rogers hasn't, and "The Purpose-Driven Life." A framed poem, written for Rogers by one of his former nurses, sits adjacent to the television. The beginning reads:

"The good times to be had / Are still yet to unfold. / Ours is a story that / others will marvel at when told. / How will we make it, / will things get worse? / Living this role / doesn't give you a chance to rehearse."

Rogers says his hardest moments are late at night or early in the morning, when he thinks about his old life: going to work, driving his truck, even walking into the kitchen.

Chris Webber, who played against Rogers in the NBA and now works as an analyst for Turner Sports, visited Rogers almost a year ago. "When I first heard what happened to him, I was shocked, scared and confused," Webber says. "But after I saw him, I was ashamed that I'd thought for one second that he'd be weak. When I left his house, I shed tears, because he'd encouraged me. He's one of the strongest people I know." Webber also spoke of how Rogers' condition "opened his eyes" to the potential benefits of stem cell research in the U.S., which he'd previously opposed but now supports.

When asked whether she'd ever thought about leaving Rogers, Suggs shakes her head. "I am still so in love with Rodney," Suggs says. "I'll never leave him." She pauses, smiles and adds, "And he better not leave me."

The last time Rogers saw his three children (Rodriga is 17, Deedee is 12 and Rodney Jr. is 6), who live with their mother in Arizona, was during Christmas. Rogers says his children resent Suggs' role in his life and, as a result, have a difficult relationship with him.

Rogers is usually positive, laughing with his nurses or Suggs, but occasionally his smile morphs into a frustrated grimace. He'll sit back, surveying the scene around him and the many hands compensating for the two he can't move. "It's very hard because I can't do anything besides wait for my nurses," Rogers says. "I have to wait for them to bathe me, put my clothes on, put me in my wheelchair. … You get tired of going from bed to wheelchair, wheelchair to bed, and that's all you can do. But I got to make the best of it."

Rogers' good friend David Snowden was paralyzed from the waist down 20 years ago. Snowden visited Rogers in Atlanta and in North Carolina to provide support for his friend and offer perspective.

"No matter who you are and what you're doing, there's always someone who would change places with you in a heartbeat," Snowden says. "That helps bring you out of that funk you may have for a quick second, thinking, 'Why me?' … Rodney was always grounded; he was never a pro athlete living in a surreal world. Even though no one is prepared for this, he gets it, which is so important."

And on days when the lows exceed the highs, Suggs is there, talking and laughing with him. "I tell him that that was the past," Suggs says. "'You're blessed to be here, so let's concentrate on what we have. Let's live life. You can eat, you can go out, you can do a lot of things. … You just can't do the things you want to do.' Once he gets used to that, he'll be fine."

And perhaps one day, step out of his chair.

Anna Katherine Clemmons writes for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. Donations can be made to the Rodney Rogers Medical Fund, 617 Glen Echo Trail, Winston-Salem, NC 27106-0000; or at http://www.therodneyrogersfoundation.org

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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