Man's extraordinary life helped future quadriplegics

He took part in ground-breaking study at UPMC

August 5, 2020 Cranberry Local News


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In September 2011, assistant professor Jennifer Collinger, left, watches as Connoquenessing Township resident Tim Hemmes operates the mechanical prosthetic arm in a quadriplegic research testing session at a UPMC facility in Pittsburgh. Hemmes volunteered to have a chip implanted on the surface of his brain to read his intention to move his paralyzed arm and send that instruction instead to a bionic arm. The goal was to create mind-controlled prosthetics. Hemmes was the only quadriplegic to say “yes” to the brain surgery necessary for that project.

Tim Hemmes was a father, business owner, athlete, medical pioneer, eternal optimist and immediate friend to all who met him.

He just happened to be paralyzed from the shoulders down.

Hemmes, 39, died July 23 at his home in Connoquenessing Township.

Hemmes' natural determination was a factor in 2011 when he became the first human to move a prosthetic using mind control.

Of the many quadriplegics who were contacted for the project by doctors at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute and University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Hemmes was the only candidate to volunteer for surgery to implant electrodes in his brain and have them removed 23 days later at the end of the experiment, said Dr. Michael Boninger, who was the project's lead physician.

The experiment was successful in demonstrating that a robotic arm and hand positioned next to Hemmes' wheelchair could be manipulated using the mind.

Timothy Hemmes

“We approached a lot of people, but there was only one person brave enough to say 'yes,'” Boninger said.

Boninger got to know Hemmes over the course of the tough experiment, and was saddened to learn that the ambitious and upbeat young man had died.

“His brain was always thinking of how things could be made better or what he could do to make things better,” Boninger said.

In such experiments, he said, doctors always ask the subject the first thing they would do if they could regain the use of their muscles.

“He said, 'I just want to be able to hug my daughter again,'” Boninger recalled with his voice cracking. “That says a lot about him.”

That initial experiment that Hemmes agreed to has led to more sophisticated experimentation on quadriplegics in Pittsburgh, including one patient who was able to fist bump President Barack Obama during a visit to the city.

“I'm confident that someday there will be treatment for spinal cord injuries, and Tim will have been one of the people who started the whole thing,” Boninger said.

He said treating quadriplegics so they could move also would allow many to live a normal life span, which was not a privilege granted to Hemmes.

Sandy Nebel drove her son to Pittsburgh each day during the project, and said he practiced for the end goal of making the robotics move by making two balls on a computer screen touch.

“It was the coolest thing to see,” Nebel said.

But the process took a toll on Hemmes, she recalled.

“By the end of the day, he was just exhausted,” she said.

After teaching himself to ice skate, Tim Hemmes earned a spot on the Butler Area High School hockey team, playing goalie.submitted photo

'Destined to do great things'

Although Hemmes didn't quite make his goal of living to see his daughter, Jaylei, turn 18 or to hug her, she said he packed a lot of life into his short time on Earth.

“I genuinely think that my dad was meant to be an amazing person,” said Jaylei, 17. “This accident happened to him for a reason because he was destined to do great things.”

The accident occurred July 11, 2004, when he swerved his motorcycle to avoid a deer. When he flew off the bike and into a guard rail, his body continued its forward motion, but his helmet caught on a spike on the guard rail.

Hemmes neck was severely broken.

“It was pretty horrific,” Hemmes said in a 2014 Butler Eagle article. “The doctors told me they had never seen such damage to a neck on a person who survived.”

Hemmes got a wheelchair that allowed him to manipulate the controls with his head, but he was forced to close his business, Sparkle & Shine Auto Detailing.

He had opened the business after high school, with no business experience other than hours of online research on state and federal requirements.

“He was the kind of person that if he put his mind to something, he accomplished it,” Nebel said.

She said her only son was also proud of his years as a goalie on the Butler Area High School Varsity Hockey Team.

His former teammates in 2014 made their annual alumni game a fundraiser for Hemmes after his wheelchair was destroyed in a vehicle accident in April of that year.

Hemmes joined his Butler High teammates on the ice in his wheelchair before the game, much to the delight of the team and all who attended to help replace Hemmes' wheelchair.

“A hockey team is like a family and we try to take care of each other,” said Bob Hoehn, who coached Hemmes on various dek and ice hockey teams and plans Butler High's alumni game each year. “Tim was a great guy and a phenomenal goaltender and a great friend to everyone.”

He called Hemmes outgoing, friendly and helpful to all.

“He was always positive and someone you wanted to be around for sure,” Hoehn said.

Nebel agreed with Hoehn's assessment.

“He just found a way to get along with everyone,” she said. “There was no meanness in him.”

She said her son played dek hockey and roller hockey as a teen, then decided he wanted to play ice hockey.

Hemmes spent hours at local ice rinks, teaching himself to skate.

He was elated to make the team at Butler High, where most of his teammates had been on the ice since they were children.

“He loved being the goalie,” Nebel said. “He didn't want any other position.”

But above all, he loved Jaylei, who moved to her father's house full-time at age 13 after living with both parents.

Dad & best friend

She was 18 months old when her father put her to bed with a kiss and a cuddle before going out for a motorcycle ride on the day of his accident.

She does not remember her father walking, but said his inability to work allowed the two to spend extended time together.

“It did make our relationship a lot stronger and a lot closer,” Jaylei said. “We'd have late-night talks, watch movies together constantly. It was always bonding time together with him.”

While Nebel served as Hemmes' full-time caregiver, Jaylei helped her father by feeding him during a movie or giving him his medicines or a drink if he was thirsty.

She said he started Pittsburgh Pit Bull Rescue after his accident, seeing that pit bulls about to be euthanized at animal shelters were rescued.

As Jaylei grew, Hemmes' attitude about raising a teenager was clear.

“His motto was: 'She's going to be a teenager. She's going to make mistakes; she's going to have fun,'” Jaylei said. “Even if he disagreed with what I was doing to the fullest, he would always support me through it.”

She said her father even counseled her when it came to teenage boy problems.

“He was my dad and my best friend,” Jaylei said.

She is not surprised her father jumped at the chance to participate in the UPMC motion study and undergo the lengthy and somewhat dangerous surgery to have the electrodes implanted, and then removed.

“When I think about it, I think 'I can't believe he did that,'” Jaylei said. “But the reason he did it was he just loved doing things that were out of the ordinary. He loved being that guy who does something crazy.”

She said he also wanted to serve others who were in his situation.

“The biggest reason was to help quadriplegics, to make everyday life a little bit easier for them,” Jaylei said.

Life will be different for Jaylei as she enters her senior year at Butler High and moves on with her life without the comforting presence of her father.

“He was definitely an amazing type of person,” she said.

Private services will be held for Hemmes, according to his wishes, at a future date, Nebel said.

Donations in memory of Tim Hemmes can be sent to the Mario Lemieux Foundation in Pittsburgh or the Butler County Humane Society.

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