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Spinal cord patients honored for good work

| Monday, July 30, 2012, 12:06 a.m.
Wheelchair basketball players scramble for position during a game for the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute Picnic for Spinal Cord Injury at Thelma Lovette YMCA in the Hill District on Sunday, July  29, 2012. 
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Wheelchair basketball players scramble for position during a game for the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute Picnic for Spinal Cord Injury at Thelma Lovette YMCA in the Hill District on Sunday, July 29, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The wheelchair of wheelchair rugby player Shawn Polach, 29, of Moon Township, is covered with dents and scratches after a game at Thelma Lovette YMCA in the Hill District on Sunday, July  29, 2012.  Polach, who experienced a spinal cord injury from a car accident, was playing as part of the  UPMC Rehabilitation Institute Picnic for Spinal Cord Injury.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The wheelchair of wheelchair rugby player Shawn Polach, 29, of Moon Township, is covered with dents and scratches after a game at Thelma Lovette YMCA in the Hill District on Sunday, July 29, 2012. Polach, who experienced a spinal cord injury from a car accident, was playing as part of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute Picnic for Spinal Cord Injury. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Doctor Michael Boninger, left, 50, Director of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute, chats with Katie Smith, center, 26, of Stahlstown, and Max Colecchi, 19, of Freeport at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute Picnic for Spinal Cord Injury at Thelma Lovette YMCA in the Hill District on Sunday, July  29, 2012.  Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Doctor Michael Boninger, left, 50, Director of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute, chats with Katie Smith, center, 26, of Stahlstown, and Max Colecchi, 19, of Freeport at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute Picnic for Spinal Cord Injury at Thelma Lovette YMCA in the Hill District on Sunday, July 29, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Wheelchair rugby player Katie Smith, 26, of Stahlstown, suits up for a game at Thelma Lovette YMCA in the Hill District on Sunday, July  29, 2012.  Smith, who experienced a spinal cord injury five years ago from a car accident, was playing as part of the  UPMC Rehabilitation Institute Picnic for Spinal Cord Injury.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Wheelchair rugby player Katie Smith, 26, of Stahlstown, suits up for a game at Thelma Lovette YMCA in the Hill District on Sunday, July 29, 2012. Smith, who experienced a spinal cord injury five years ago from a car accident, was playing as part of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute Picnic for Spinal Cord Injury. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Wheelchair rugby players are silhouetted during a game for the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute Picnic for Spinal Cord Injury at Thelma Lovette YMCA in the Hill District on Sunday, July  29, 2012. 
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Wheelchair rugby players are silhouetted during a game for the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute Picnic for Spinal Cord Injury at Thelma Lovette YMCA in the Hill District on Sunday, July 29, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review

UPMC held its first picnic Sunday to honor the many spinal cord patients who volunteered for research projects that have done everything from improving the handrail of a wheelchair to allowing a patient to eventually use an artificial arm a la Luke Skywalker — but without the light saber.

“Pittsburgh is probably the No. 1 city in the country, which probably means the world, for rehabilitation research,” said Dr. Michael Boninger, director of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute and professor and chairman of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation for the University of Pittsburgh. “There's probably not a wheelchair manufactured that hasn't been affected by research in Pittsburgh.”

Bryan McCormick, 29, of Munhall lost all movement and feeling below his rib cage in a skiing accident on Jan. 13, 2001.

“Just the wrong place, wrong time,” he said. “Landed on my back and squashed my spinal cord like a hose.”

McCormick became a research subject after the injury.

“I just thought it would be something to contribute to science and contribute to society,” he said. “These were a product of research,” grasping the guardrail of the armchair in which he sat. “So in the long run, it did benefit me.”

McCormick was among about 100 people who attended the picnic at the Thelma Lovette YMCA in the Lower Hill District. Some spinal cord patients swam or played basketball and rugby, banging into each other as if they were using bumper cars rather than wheelchairs.

Joe Snyder, 34, of Kane in McKean County, shattered his fifth vertebra in a diving accident at Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Sept. 17, 2005, and has been paralyzed from the chest down ever since. He has taken part in studies improving wheelchair cushions and the technique for using wheelchairs.

“I want to give back everything I know to the newly injured people,” he said.

The guest of honor was Tim Hemmes, 31, of Evans City. Paralyzed in a motorcycle accident eight years ago, he became the first patient to control an artificial arm with brain surface electrodes.

The electrodes were implanted in his brain last year, and wires connected them to a computer the size of three desktop computers. He spent 28 days last year practicing moving a computerized ball by merely thinking until he ultimately gave a high five with an artificial arm. Researchers continue to work on the device.

Hemmes said his daughter, 18 months old when the accident occurred and now 9, is his inspiration.

“My daughter was the last person I touched when I put her to bed and gave her a kiss and went out for a bike ride,” he said, “and I want her to be the first person I touch again.”

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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