The Recovery and Dream of Ed Eckenhoff

My grandfather immigrated to America and delivered milk. My father worked hard, became a physician, and achieved national recognition. My father’s success was earned through diligence and determination. He believed that my brothers and I should follow his example. He never paid an allowance; he never gave us anything besides encouragement and expectations.

We grew up in a small town outside of Philadelphia. I had 2 younger brothers, Walter and Roderic, and a twin named Benjamin. My father and mother believed in achievement, effort, honesty and that we stick together.

We lived a fairly normal childhood. My brothers all attended the same high school where we all played sports. My twin brother and I were the co-captains of the track team, and I played football. Academically, 3 of the 4 brothers did exceedingly well. I was the 4th.

In 1962 I attended my first year of college at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. My academic performance mirrored that of my high school years: I was more focused on athletics and chasing girls than studying for exams. On the last night of my freshman year, my roommate came into my room and said he had forgotten his wallet at a sorority house. So we went for “one last spin.” We were driving 55 mph when the car flipped. I was thrown out of the car, and my roommate was pinned by the steering column. He died instantly.

I came-to in a hospital in Lexington. I didn’t have my wallet, so no one knew who I was. I was paralyzed from the waist down and would never walk again.

My father flew out the next day and had me transferred to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. I spent the next 2 and a half months in acute care and the following 3 months in a rehabilitation center. I approached recovery like a football game. They said I broke recovery records, but it wasn’t real for me yet.

Leaving rehabilitation, I returned to an able bodied world, and I was now different. The one thing I remember, much to my surprise, is how accepting people were of my disability and the reception I received from my peers and family. People treated me with respect and didn’t let my disability overshadow me as a person.

I returned to school after missing only a semester. This is when my disability became real. My appetite for being wild had diminished. I no longer felt that life was silly. I realized that I had two choices: one to sit depressed in a wheelchair or two, to rise above it and use what my family and God had given me, including my disability. I had to look past obstacles and focus on opportunities.

I could no longer compete on the field, so I decided to compete in the classroom. Whether you are throwing a shot-put 54’ 7” or getting an A on an exam, competition is competition. After my first semester back, I was on a new path. I soon learned that I enjoyed this style of competition and wasn’t half bad at it. I graduated with great grades and was accepted to graduate school.

My father came into my room after graduation and told me how proud he was of me. He said, although I wouldn’t fully understand why until years later, this accident was the best thing that had ever happened to me. I found myself through this struggle, and I felt a need to achieve and overcome my disability. I was a completely different person.

My family played a vital role in my transformation; they supported me while developing my independence. The only obstacle I faced was my own will.

I met my wife, Judi in 1977. I attribute a lot of my success to her. When we were married we had $700 in our bank account, but that didn’t hinder pursuing our American Dream.

I was working as an Administrator for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, when I was approached by some men who had bought an old hospital in Washington, D.C. They wanted me to develop a Rehabilitation Hospital. I was content in Chicago and saw no reason to leave, yet I still agreed to visit. After several visits, I saw the potential. Done properly, it could change the entire rehabilitation field and help thousands of Americans.

In 1982, Judi and I took a risk. We moved to Washington with the hope of starting our new hospital and creating a model for healthcare that didn’t exist. The chances were slim, but the potential advancement in our field was too great not to try. It is what my dad taught me to do. After overcoming tremendous obstacles from the city, lawyers, and others, we began building the National Rehabilitation Hospital.

The hospital opened in 1986; by 1991 it was seen as one of the leading hospitals in the field. It now has a staff of over 1,000, and an operating budget of almost $200 million. Since opening our doors in 1986, we have helped nearly 50,000 in-patients and millions of out patients.

Looking back, I have no idea what I would be doing with my life if I had not gotten in that car that night when I was 20 years old. I very well could’ve been a track coach or maybe even have spent time in jail. I don’t know, but what I do know is that my father was right. That night changed my life, and although I would never wish that accident on anyone, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

A lot of success stories are based on well-timed opportunities, and I certainly enjoyed a few. But my life was inspired by obstacle and challenge. I’ve been able to help thousands of people just like me. I’ve made a difference, and I’ve changed lives. It’s amazing how accepting and supportive people can be of those who have suffered adversity in this country. I never thought I’d end up where I am today, but with hard work in America, the possibilities are endless.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. wynnieweb says:

    Ed, just stumbled in this on the internet.
    Read with love and emotion! Your dream come true has linked with countless more. Mine included.

    Like

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