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A Test of Love

After Craig Dobkin's 80-foot fall, his brother Bruce combined medical knowledge with brotherly concern to guide the injured man from the brink of death to a full life.


One of the most enduring memories Craig Dobkin has of his brother Bruce never really happened.

It begins with Bruce riding a tricycle around a hospital floor. He peddles over to Craig, who is in an ICU bed. When Bruce gets closer, Craig whispers: "They're trying to kill me here."

"No, we're trying to save you," Bruce replies.

The recollection is more morphine than reality. There was no tricycle, but Bruce was trying to save Craig. And something, not somebody, was trying to kill Craig--a free fall from a Wisconsin cliff side.

"It's a blessing that I can hardly remember anything," said Craig, 49, of his 1995 mountaineering accident.

Bruce, however, is cursed with remembering almost everything. He remembers a phone call to his UCLA office. He remembers a plane trip to a small hospital in Green Bay. He remembers the quiet of the intensive care unit moments before laying eyes on the mangled body of his brother.

Most of all, he remembers the injuries. A concussion, a broken left hand, eight broken ribs, a cracked sternum, severely bruised lungs and a fractured vertebra.

"I remember walking out of the ICU and it was just before my mother was supposed to arrive," said Bruce, 52. "I was crying down the hallway. It was just awful. Craig was so beat up. I just couldn't imagine how I was going to show all this to my mother."

More even than his brother's doctors, Bruce understood the grave implications of the injuries, particularly the one to the spinal cord. Bruce is a leading neurologist and has cared for at least 100 other patients who had damaged their spinal cords as badly as or worse than Craig had. Bruce knew that even if his brother survived, he'd still probably never walk again.

"Most of the time I was acting as the doctor who happened to be the brother," said Bruce, director of UCLA's Neurologic Rehabilitation and Research Unit. "The rest of the time I was the brother who couldn't believe what was happening to his younger brother."

For both brothers, the tragic accident and the ongoing struggle for recovery has been a crucible of sorts. It has tested individual and family limits. It has left them, at times, bewildered, exhausted and hopeless.

But as sometimes happens under difficult circumstances, people meet a once-unthinkable challenge head-on, and transform the cruelty of irony and chance into a triumph of love and life. Such is the case with the Dobkin brothers.

It was a beautiful, brisk October day in Wisconsin. Craig, a veteran climber of some of the world's highest mountains, was to teach a group of novices to rappel down a mountainside.

As a well-known advocate of programs like Outward Bound, Craig had led hundreds of student groups on similarly rugged trips. His programs, attended by everyone from corporate executives to battered children, were designed to foster self-reliance and teamwork.

"If I give you a fish, you eat for a day. If I teach you to fish, you eat for a lifetime," said Craig in explaining the educational philosophy. "But here's a third model: If I teach you to think, you don't have to eat fish every day."

As a standard safety precaution, Craig surveyed the area first. With his climbing ropes, Craig moved up and down the mountain to make sure the climb wasn't beyond the group's skill and also to clear the mountain face of any loose rocks.

The inspection seemed to be going fine. Craig returned to the top, took a quick break and prepared for another descent. What happened next nobody knows for sure.

Some say Craig was somehow distracted by the group. Others say Craig had been doing too much, had been too busy, and it was only a matter of time before he overlooked some small, but vital, detail. Craig says it could have been one of those or it could have been that he just slipped up.

"Setting up rappels is something I'd done hundreds of times before," Craig said. "It's a mystery how I fell. I gave up trying to figure it out a long time ago."

As soon as Craig stepped backward off the mountainside, the anchoring ropes gave way. Ropes and spikes flew into his face. Craig tried to grab ahold of something, anything, but it was too late.

He fell 80 feet.

It's incredible he didn't die immediately. Bruce and other doctors believe it was Craig's physical strength and agility that prevented him from breaking his legs or severing his spine at the neck.

But this wasn't the first time Craig would pull himself out of a life-threatening situation. On Mt. McKinley, he'd gone snow-blind and weathered a storm for three days in a snow cave he'd carved. In the Himalayas, his lungs filled with fluid after suffering pulmonary edema at 21,000 feet, but he descended 2,000 feet--on his own power--to safety.

Perhaps most dangerously, Craig had silently wrestled with depression for most of his life. A few times he was suicidal.

It wasn't until his early 40s that he found out why. He suffered from a chemical imbalance in his brain that caused radical mood swings. The condition is effectively treated with medication.

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