Ed Eckenhoff, founder and former president and CEO of the Washington, DC-based MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH), and a tireless advocate for the disabled, died yesterday after a battle with cancer. He was 74.

Eckenhoff founded NRH in 1986 and served as its president and CEO until his retirement in 2009. He oversaw its growth from a single hospital to a medical rehabilitation network providing both inpatient and outpatient care, with unique offerings such as day treatment programs addressing conditions such as spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injury. 

The network now operates in 40 locations, providing nearly 400,000 ambulatory visits annually in addition to the hospital's more than 2,200 inpatient admissions.

His tenure at NRH saw the development of a major research endeavor, the Christoph Ruesch Neuroscience Research Center. He helped forge an academic relationship with Georgetown University Hospital and a clinical relationship with the National Institutes of Health. He extended NRH’s research arm to develop a relationship with the military in seeking better ways to rehabilitate soldiers with major disabilities such as traumatic brain and spinal-code injuries as well as amputations.

“He came to Washington to build a hospital and network that focused on ability, not disability,” said John Rockwood, who succeeded Eckenhoff as president of MedStar NRH. “He was a nationally recognized figure in the field of medical rehabilitation, and in many ways led the medical profession in advocating for persons with disabilities.”

Eckenhoff said his life was inspired by obstacle and challenge. Tall, strong and one of four brothers, he was a fullback on the Swarthmore (Pa.) High School football team, played tennis and captained the track team. As a freshman at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., he was more focused on sports than academics, as he told the AHA’s Center for Hospital and Healthcare Administration History in a 2015 oral history.

In 1963, at age 20, while he was riding in the passenger seat of his roommate’s sports car, his life changed when the car crashed, throwing him from the vehicle. He landed on his back and was paralyzed from the waist down. His roommate died.

“It was a hard lesson,” he said in the AHA interview. “It turned me around, but I needed to be turned around. It was extremely beneficial in making me use what God had given me and to move forward and become successful.”

After graduating from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis with a master’s degree in health care administration, he worked from 1974 to 1982 at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where he became vice president of administration.

Eckenhoff served on the AHA Board of Trustees from 1991 to 1993, and chaired the association’s constituency section for long-term care and rehabilitation hospitals. He received the AHA’s 2007 Award of Honor, which recognizes people who have made outstanding contributions to public health and well-being through health service or public policy leadership. 

“We’ve lost one of the health care giants with Ed’s passing,” said AHA President and CEO Rick Pollack. “As a patient, Ed recognized the need for specialized rehabilitative care and he answered that call through the NRH. As a health care executive, he helped patients with a wide range of conditions resulting in varying degrees of physical disability return to normal activities of daily living. He was a mentor and role model to so many – including myself – in his integrity, passion and commitment to providing high-quality patient care.”

The American Medical Association awarded Eckenhoff the Citation of a Layman for Distinguished Service, the highest honor it bestows on a non-physician. He received the 1995 Meritorious Award from the American Occupational Therapy Foundation. In 1989, he was named "Washingtonian of the Year" by Washingtonian magazine.

In 2007, following the disclosure of substandard conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, President Bush appointed Eckenhoff to the Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors, chaired by former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and former Sen. Bob Dole. The commission was charged with evaluating rehabilitation programs and services and making recommendation to improve care for injured soldiers and their families.

“I’ve been able to help thousands of people just like me,” Eckenhoff told the online Our American Dream Stories in 2016. “It’s amazing how accepting and supportive people can be of those who have suffered adversity in this country. I never thought I’d end up where I am today, but with hard work in America, the possibilities are endless.”