A swim from Alcatraz: escaping the prison of a damaged body

41-year-old Rob Heitz is planning the 1-to-2-mile swim Friday. Some 19 years after becoming paralyzed following a freak diving accident in Lake Michigan, he is now mostly recovered.

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Rob Heitz, 41, who was left paralyzed after diving into shallow water in Lake Michigan near Racine, Wisc., in 2003, swims near the Ohio Street Beach on Aug. 16, 2022. Heitz is training to swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco on Aug. 19, 2022.

Rob Heitz, 41, who was left paralyzed after diving into shallow water in Lake Michigan near Racine, Wis., in 2003, swims near the Ohio Street Beach on Tuesday morning. Heitz is training to swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco on Friday. Heitz, who describes himself as a “high-functioning quadriplegic,” had an incomplete spinal cord injury and still feels weakness and tingling on the left side of his body.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Rob Heitz lowered himself into Lake Michigan, just as the sun edged above the horizon, flaming the water’s surface a coppery pink.

The water beneath is murky on this day. But sometimes it’s so clear that Heitz, 41, sees Divvy bikes, city garbage cans, drones — even the occasional lamppost — littering the lake floor. Out of the corner of his eye, he might spot a fish, one as long as his forearm, he said.

Where he’ll be Friday, the fish are a bit bigger.

“They say it’s rare to see a great white,” he said.

He’s talking about San Francisco Bay, where he plans to swim from Alcatraz Island, site of the old prison that once housed Al Capone, to the shore — about 1 to 2 miles, depending on the currents.

Heitz isn’t a daredevil. There’s a quiet intensity in his pale gray eyes, reflecting a will to overcome following the freak boating accident 19 years ago that damaged his spinal cord and left him a quadriplegic.

But you wouldn’t know it, except perhaps in winter when the cold takes hold of his body.

“I walk like Frankenstein,” he said, chatting recently in the lobby of his West Loop apartment tower.

In 2003, Heitz, then 22, was out on his boss’ boat on Lake Michigan near Racine, Wis. The vessel had just anchored. Heitz, unfamiliar with the spot, dove into water that was only 2 to 3 feet deep, striking his head. His memory is mostly blank for the hours that followed. He remembers waking in a Wisconsin hospital, surrounded by his mother, father, sister — and a blunt-talking doctor.

“And he says, ‘I have to tell you, your son’s injury is bad and the extent of the damage is such that 95% of the people we see with this degree of injury never walk again,’” Heitz remembers the doctor saying.

Heitz told his dad: “My life is over.”

Rob Heitz prepares to swim in Lake Michigan on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022.

Rob Heitz thought his life was over after a freak accident left him paralyzed from the neck down. Now, he’s preparing to swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

There were times, Heitz said, when his thoughts sank to the darkest places.

“I thought through: Am I ever going to find someone? Am I ever going to get married and have kids? Am I going to have to rely on other people to care for me for the rest of my life?” he said.

Heitz’s father, then a personal injury attorney, quickly found a specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. The impact from the dive had shattered one of the vertebrae in Heitz’s neck. The spinal cord had been damaged but not severed. Surgeons fashioned a vertebra from a piece of Heitz’s hipbone and fused two other vertebrae together. Titanium plates and screws hold it all together.

An X-ray of Rob Heitz’s neck, showing the titanium screws and plates holding his vertebrae together.

An X-ray of Rob Heitz’s neck, showing the titanium screws and plates holding his vertebrae together.

Provided

He was transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, now the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. There, he was offered a chance to participate in a study using a robotic device that would eventually retrain his brain and body to walk again.

Which he did. The first time he looked in the mirror, and saw himself walking on a treadmill, Heitz said: “I’m in tears, my family is in tears.”

But his story of recovery is not a common one.

“He’s a very rare example,” said Arun Jayaraman, a robotics scientist at Shirley Ryan and a professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “Most people with injuries like him continue to be in wheelchairs and struggle with mobility on an everyday basis. ... But he’s a great example to follow — that people can recover from complex medical conditions.”

Rob Heitz prepares to swim in Lake Michigan Tuesday morning, Aug. 16, 2022. He had surgery after being paralyzed; the scar is visible below his neck.

Rob Heitz, who hit his head on a sandbar and was paralyzed after he dove head-first into Lake Michigan in 2003, prepares to swim in the lake on Tuesday morning. He had surgery and has learned to walk again, though he has almost no feeling on the left side of his body. The scar from his surgery is visible below his neck.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Heitz’s “relentless” drive to get better, coupled with strong family support, worked in his favor, Jayaraman said.

Heitz is, technically, still a quadriplegic. And he’s not fully cured. He has no feeling on much of the left side of his body. He can feel his fingers on his left hand, though.

“It mostly feels like pins and needles — like a sunburn,” he said. “It’s amazing what you get used to.”

Heitz went back to college after his accident, taking graduate-level classes in biomedical engineering. He’s a salesman for the company that makes the robotic devices that allowed him to walk again. Four years ago, he started a charity to help pay for the devices so that more people could have access to them.

He said he remembers being on a sales visit with a Chicago-area family whose son had a brain injury but who’d been refused further treatment at the hospital because doctors didn’t think it would help.

“It tore me apart because that could have been me,” he said.

Rob Heitz swims in Lake Michigan Tuesday, tethered to a swim buoy that holds his wallet and cellphone.

Rob Heitz swims in Lake Michigan, tethered to a swim buoy that holds his wallet and cellphone.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

That explains why Heitz, in January 2021, began training to swim across San Francisco Bay — to raise money for his charity, Paralysis Recovery Foundation. He swims every day, often at sunrise. The lake water was relatively warm this week — 70 or so degrees, about 20 degrees warmer than it will be in the waters off San Francisco. He wears a wetsuit and carries a neon-orange “swim buoy” that bobs behind him with his wallet and cellphone inside. The roar of the traffic on DuSable Lake Shore Drive is constant, but he can’t hear it. He’s wearing waterproof headphones.

“When I really want to amp up my adrenaline, I listen to heavy metal,” he said, before jumping in.

Half an hour after starting his swim, he climbs up the ladder and out of the lake, water dripping from his glistening wetsuit.

Rob Heitz douses himself in bottled water following his sunrise swim in Lake Michigan Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022.

Rob Heitz douses himself with bottled water following his sunrise swim in Lake Michigan on Tuesday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“Nice, leisurely last swim,” he said. “I was hoping [the waves] were going to be worse.”

The water will almost certainly be choppier Friday, and the cold will take some getting used to. He’ll swim alone, but he’ll be followed by a boat and a kayaker.

Heitz’s mother, Norma Heitz, won’t be in San Francisco. The swimmer’s father, Philip, is scheduled for hip replacement surgery in the coming weeks. They’ll both watch a livestream.

Norma Heitz said she couldn’t have imagined her son would one day plunge into the water off Alcatraz Island, but she’s not surprised. She has an unshakeable faith in her son and in God.

“If Rob didn’t get the healing, Rob would still be on the front page of the newspaper because he takes lemons and he makes lemonade,” she said.

Rob Heitz did a test swim in the bay almost a year ago. The water felt like an “ice bath,” he recalls. He got stung by a jellyfish. But you can’t beat the view, he said.

“I’m swimming, and the Golden Gate Bridge is there,” he added.

“There’s a patch of fog and then Alcatraz. I was so excited. I quickly forget what was happening to my body.”

To learn more about Heitz and his mission, go to: www.paralysisfoundation.org

Rob Heitz plans to swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco on Friday.

Rob Heitz prepares to swim in Lake Michigan on his final training run before traveling to California. On Friday, he plans to swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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