Bradford C. Berk, M.D., Ph.D.
Distinguished University Professor in Medicine, Neurology, Pathology, Pharmacology & Physiology, and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

Director, University of Rochester Neurorestoration Institute University of Rochester Medical Center

My story of recovery

On Memorial Day of 2009—at the peak of my career as a physician, medical researcher, and CEO for a respected university medical center—I took a bike ride that changed my life. My family and I were spending the holiday weekend at our cottage on Canandaigua Lake and, as usual I was up early, eager to get on the road during the cool of the morning. Long-distance cycling had been my preferred form of physical exercise for many years (one of my favorite routes was a 60 mile ride around the lake). On that beautiful spring morning nearly 10 years ago, close to the end of a route I had travelled hundreds of times, I made my customary stop at the top of the last hill to take in the view of the lake and the steep descent that lay ahead. From that vantage point I could see the hairpin turn in the road below me: all clear.

The accident

But when I descended the hill and rounded the corner a car unexpectedly blocked my way. I could not swerve around it because I would have flipped over a guard rail and plunged down a steep ravine. So, I leaned back and tried to lay the bike down sideways, hoping to slide under the vehicle. Suddenly, my front tire blew and because the hill was so steep, I was thrown over the handlebars. I did not have time to even take my hands off the handlebars and, travelling at great speed, slammed head first into the ground. I heard a loud crack as the impact broke my neck.

The prognosis

I was paralyzed from the shoulders down with no sensation or movement. Hospitalized for 129 days—during which I spent ten days in the intensive care unit and twenty-one days on a ventilator—my prognosis was not good.

Like all patients who have suffered severe damage to the spinal cord or another acute neurological injury such as stroke or traumatic brain injury; I was told that the first 12 months would reveal the limits of my recovery, the “this is as good as it’s gonna get for you” scenario. Thankfully, that depressing prediction proved to be untrue. My recovery continued long past the 12-month mark; it continues to this day.

My full life today

I currently enjoy a rewarding career as the Director of the University of Rochester Neurorestoration Institute (URNI); I lead a full family- and social-life; and I am an active member of the community, participating in civic events throughout the year. I have recovered far more function than anyone predicted. Yes, I spend much of each day in a wheelchair, but I use a stationary bike for 45 minutes every morning as I check my emails at work, I stand for one hour each day in my standing frame, and I walk 15 to 20 minutes every day using a special walker. Also, for fun, exercise and a good time, I ride a Catrike tricycle—that I power with my own legs—for one and a half hours with my buddies every Sunday. I travel the world to speak in my capacity as a medical and scientific expert, and also on vacation with my wife and family.

Harnessing the mind to get back to life

I perform physical therapy daily, focusing on increasing the range of motion and strength of my arms. Over the last year I have made significant progress by combining traditional Chinese medicine and techniques (specifically massage, manipulation, meditation, and acupuncture) with typical American physical therapy to achieve my goals. These therapies have enabled me to harness the power of my mind to recover body functions.

As director of the University of Rochester Neurorestoration Institute’s advanced approach to treating acute neurological injuries (due to stroke, spinal cord injury, or traumatic brain injury), I want to share what we’ve learned about how the injured individual can get “back to life.”