Pole vaulter works on recoveryRAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — Every once in a while, James Vollmer has a flashback to the accident.
By: Lyn Taylor Rick, Rapid City Journal, The Jamestown Sun
RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — Every once in a while, James Vollmer has a flashback to the accident.
It mostly happens when he’s coaching high school pole vaulting and sees a mistake that could result in a dangerous landing.
“I have to look away,” he says.
Vollmer, 24, knows a thing or two about the repercussions of dangerous landings.
On Dec. 1, 2010, the former Rapid City Stevens High School track standout was practicing pole vaulting at Jamestown College in Jamestown.
He began his vault without incident. But somewhere along the way, it all went terribly wrong. To this day, Vollmer still doesn’t know exactly what happened, and he had no coach to offer any insight. But rather than landing safely on the mat surrounding the vault, Vollmer fell 15 feet directly down into the metal vault box — the slot where the pole plants.
The fall severed his spinal cord — just two strands remain attached — leaving him paralyzed from the belly button down.
“I remember it all, which kind of sucks,” he said.
That’s the shocking and life-altering part of Vollmer’s story, but the exceptional part is what has happened since his accident.
Within two days of the fall — while still in the hospital in Fargo. — Vollmer learned to transfer himself from bed to wheelchair, already working at becoming mobile
“I just wanted to get out,” he says with a smile.
Ten days after the accident, Vollmer transferred to Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., a rehabilitation facility specializing in spinal cord injuries. He threw himself into his new normal, relearning everything from rolling over to cooking. But he didn’t stop there. He also wanted to relearn how to change a light bulb and even shovel snow from the vantage of his wheelchair.
“He moved through the program very quickly,” said his Craig physical therapist, Stephanie Laube. “He’s a problem-solver.”
He also proved to be a popular patient, “bribing” Craig staff with his chicken cordon bleu and winning the hospital’s cooking contest with his bacon-wrapped chicken, Laube said.
“James maintained a pretty upbeat and positive attitude,” she said. “His willingness to laugh; we laughed a lot together and I think that really helped.”
Vollmer said he decided early on that the accident would not ruin his life. There would be no self-pity.
“I can’t change what happened,” he said.
Instead, he focused on getting mobile and getting back to the things he loved. One of them was pole vaulting.
Two days after the accident, Vollmer called his former Stevens pole vaulting coach, Jeff Barnes. Vollmer had a simple question. “When I get back to Rapid, can I help?” Barnes remembers.
Ever since his Stevens High School days, Vollmer had helped younger pole vaulters whenever he was back from college. Barnes assured him he was still welcome.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Barnes said. “When he was in high school, we couldn’t get him out of the gym.”
Vollmer checked out of Craig on Feb. 2, 2011, the day before his birthday. He’s been home in Rapid City ever since, finding his new normal.
Vollmer returned to the classroom, working toward his undergraduate degree at the University Center in Rapid City. He will graduate in the fall, and plans to apply to graduate school. He wants to become a school counselor and coach.
His career choice doesn’t surprise Barnes in the least.
“He’s great with the kids,” he said. “The school that gets him will be lucky.”
It doesn’t surprise his former physical therapist either.
“That will be such a fantastic fit for him. He’s a very motivating person,” said Laube.
Vollmer spends most of his afternoons this spring in the Stevens High School gym doing just that — motivating. He parks his wheelchair near the mats, watching vaulters carefully, offering a tip here and there. In between vaults, he and the students banter.
Vollmer’s experience at the vault serves him well, Barnes said. And his accident gets the kids’ attention when it comes to safety
“I’ve never had kids listen to every word I said until now,” Vollmer said. “It makes me cautious, maybe overly cautious.”
During a recent track meet, Vollmer scratched an exhausted athlete when he discovered she had no training at pole vault. When her father urged her to try anyway, Vollmer stood his ground.
“I told her I have plenty of reasons why (she couldn’t compete) and I’m sitting in one of them,” he said.
While Vollmer’s rehabilitation seems remarkable to the people in his life, it becomes even more so considering the continual pain he manages.
Laube said the condition is called neuropathic pain and occurs when the communication between the body and brain gets muddled due to a spinal cord injury. For Vollmer, he feels pain throughout his lower extremities
“It feels like you’re being dipped into a boiling bath. That’s what I feel all day, every day,” Vollmer offers matter-of-factly.
Pain medications help, but don’t eliminate it.
“I have to keep myself busy. If I’m not busy, it starts getting to me,” he said. The nights are most difficult. Vollmer said he listens to music — anything but jazz — to distract him. Despite his commitment to remain positive, he admits the quiet of night is a perfect breeding ground for disappointment over the things that will never be.
“I can’t do certain things now. It’s going to take time to figure it out,” he said.
But he can drive — his black pickup is especially equipped for him — which allows him some independence. He still lives with his parents, but assumes someday he will be able to live alone again. Until then, he doesn’t mind.
“My family and I, we’ve been through a lot,” he said.
Vollmer’s mom, Ginger, spent the entire 2 1/2 months at Craig Hospital with her son.
She said her son is the reason the family has done so well during the past year.
“His strength is just amazing. Him being so strong has helped our family immensely . and our faith,” she said. “His faith has helped him too. He can’t quite understand why, but God works in mysterious ways.”
Vollmer and his parents have not given up hope that medical advancements might enable him to walk again. He recently applied to a stem cell clinical trial in Switzerland, missing the cut-off for date of injury by just six weeks.
Vollmer isn’t discouraged. He just keeps looking for others trials.
“I figure 10 years and they should have something,” he said. He’ll be 34 then, hopefully working as a counselor and coach. He figures he can handle 10 years if the end result means he walks again.
“I have things to keep me busy while I’m waiting,” he said.