Taking Flight: Patient-Donor-Pilot Sets Sights on the Sky
On that fall day, Lee Sommer was taking care of routine tasks, including tending to aircraft and receiving Jet-A fuel for a large fuel truck. “I jumped off the truck as I always do,” Lee remembers. “I felt a twinge in my back on the impact, but it wasn’t too bad.”
March 9, 2017
September 1 was a routine day for pilot Lee Sommer. As manager of the College Park Airport, Lee’s responsibilities run the gamut—and his passion for flying and pride in the historic airport are boundless. “It’s been around since 1909,” he says. “It was a demonstration and training site for the Wright Brothers, and is the world’s oldest continually operating airport,” he says, happy to remind anyone within earshot.
On that fall day, Lee was taking care of routine tasks, including tending to aircraft and receiving Jet-A fuel for a large fuel truck. “I jumped off the truck as I always do,” Lee remembers. “I felt a twinge in my back on the impact, but it wasn’t too bad.”
He was a bit uncomfortable, but he and his husband Luis still drove up to their cabin in the West Virginia woods that weekend. “I went to bed feeling ok,” Lee says. “But when I woke up during the night, my right leg didn’t work at all.”
After an ambulance ride to the local hospital, Lee was transported via medevac to Morgantown. The final diagnosis? Lee had suffered an incomplete paralysis called a cauda equina lesion. A mass of nerves that fan out of the spinal cord at his lower back were injured, which caused the loss of movement and sensation.
Surgery was performed to release the pressure on the nerves and the surgeon told Lee that with intensive therapy recovery was possible. Then Lee was referred to MedStar NRH and on September 9, he arrived at the hospital by ambulance.
“Dr. Pamela Ballard evaluated me right away. And then the next day I started a regimen of physical and occupational therapy. It was hard work, but worth it. I had such support by the entire team at the hospital. Harsh Thakkar, the spinal cord injury wellness specialist, was terrific. He got me involved in the fitness program in the gym.
“Little by little I saw improvement,” he says. “When I left the hospital on November 1, I got a wheelchair but I haven’t really used it. I’m still using a walker to steady myself, but I try not to be dependent on it.”
Lee is continuing outpatient therapy at MedStar NRH, and is back to work doing mostly administrative duties. “I did taxi the field in my plane,” he says. And he is determined to be back in the air soon, where he has felt at home since he was just 18.
“This experience has been the biggest challenge in my life,” Lee adds. “But I feel encouraged and I’m so impressed with MedStar NRH. The fantastic technology like the Ekso Bionics GT™ frame and ZeroG® amazed me. And the adaptive exercise and sports programs are fantastic.
“When I heard these programs needed contributions to stay on budget I decided to donate. I also believe in it so much. I’m going to organize a benefit at the airport to raise funds,” he says.
“My personal goal is to get back 100 percent. I know the MedStar NRH team is critical to my achieving it.”
Written by Emily Turk.
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