NRN Spotlight: Richard Saburro

Posted by Reeve Staff in Daily Dose on November 06, 2017 # Health, Research

By many measures, Richard Saburro has led an active and interesting life. A retired United States Air Force Colonel, Saburro culminated his impressive 31-year military career as the commander of Operation Deep Freeze, the codename for U.S. military operations in Antarctica.

From 1997-2001, Saburro managed all military logistics support for National Science Foundation- sponsored research across the continent, including the renowned 1998 mission to airdrop medical supplies to Dr. Jerri Nielsen who needed to treat self-diagnosed breast cancer.

“There were no paved runways. We had to land on the ice and snow,” said Saburro who also hosted Bill Clinton’s visit in 1999. The 6,330-foot Saburro Peak in Antarctica was also named in his honor. “It was an interesting, exciting and challenging job.”

Saburro returned to the states in 2001 to begin his next adventure as President and CEO of Starfire Systems, a high-tech, advanced materials company that was the exclusive supplier of the space shuttle heat shield repair kit. In 2004, his life changed again.

“I began to show symptoms of a spinal cord injury with no traumatic event,” said Saburro who has damage to his spinal cord between T6 and T8. “First I had pain, then trouble staying on my feet. I went from a cane to crutches to a wheelchair by 2010.”

After many visits to different hospitals, the consensus diagnosis was transverse myelitis, or an inflamed spinal cord, but no one could help with treatment.

“Then someone told me about activity-based training and I learned about Susan Harkema’s work at the Reeve Foundation's NeuroRecovery Network®,” said Saburro. “It became clear to me that Locomotor Training was my best hope for improvement.”

In January 2017, he enrolled in the NeuroRecovery Network (NRN) at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, NJ.

“It didn’t take long until I started noticing changes, small changes but they enabled big changes in my quality of life,” said Saburro who participated in 80 NRN sessions.

One of Saburro biggest challenges was spasticity. For years, he couldn’t bend his right leg and his left leg wouldn’t straighten enough to bear weight. Thanks to Locomotor Training, he can now bend his right leg and bear weight on his left which makes activities like getting out of bed and assisted stair climbing easier.

“I need less and less assistance now which has improved my ability to live independently,” said Saburro. “The more active I am, the more I improve on my own so I am continuing to see benefits from the NRN. In effect, I can be my own Locomotor Training machine.”

In addition to physical improvements, Saburro has also experienced more self-confidence and reduced anxiety since his time at the NRN.

“I am much more comfortable and confident out in the community,” said Saburro. “As I force myself to do more things independently, I find more success. I just need to get out there and do things every day.”

Saburro plans to participate in additional research studies and hopes to help facilitate the Veterans Administration adoption of some of the NRN protocols.

“I owe a big thank you to the Reeve Foundation. They are doing an outstanding job,” said Saburro. “There is plenty of evidence that the NRN works. I want to do what I can to help others benefit too.”

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.