Friday, May 20, 2011

Look Mom, No Stem Cells

A new study is giving hope to millions who are paralyzed as the result of spinal cord injuries. The results of a new treatment challenge the conventional thinking that signals from the brain are needed for walking.

It might be a small step for 25-year-old Rob Summers, of Portland, Ore., but it's a giant leap for the five-and-a-half million people with spinal cord injuries.

Five years ago, "Early Show" co-anchor Chris Wragge reported, the elite athlete had dreams of becoming a major league baseball player, but was struck by a drunk driver while standing outside his home.

"The car then drove off, leaving me there with nothing and no help, no hope," Summers said.

Doctors told Summers he would never walk again. He was paralyzed from the chest down.

Summers said he was told, " 'You'll never take a step. Nothing."'

But his life changed after meeting Dr. Susan Harkema, of the University of Louisville. He became the first patient to take part in an experimental therapy for his type of paralysis.

Summers' injury disrupted the nerve pathway that normally triggers walking. Researchers implanted an electrical stimulator at the base of the spine that -- along with special exercises -- enabled his legs to move without input from the brain.

Having gone four years without any movement in his lower body, he was standing on his own in just three days -- a breakthrough that could change the future treatment of paralysis.

Summers said, "It was absolutely an incredible feeling."

Now, he can even take a few steps on a treadmill.

The results of the research have been published in the medical journal Lancet. The research was funded by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which was established after the late actor suffered his spinal cord injury.

The foundation's Susan Howley says, "These are early days, this is a first step, we have a very long way to go, but I think the implications are enormous. And I think Christopher Reeve would be very, very pleased."

And on "The Early Show," Rob Summers said he went into the therapy with "an open mind and a strong work ethic."

"I was optimistic from day one," he said.

Summers said when he regained some movement in his lower extremities it was "incredible."

"After not having moved anything for four years, and being able to stand, it was the best feeling I've ever had," he said.

Dr. Susan Harkema, who spearheaded the effort for the experimental therapy, said on "The Early Show" she was surprised how early Summers responded to the treatment.

She said, "It was gratifying to know that decades of research by many scientists had reached a point where it might help people with paralysis."

Harkema said Summers was a good candidate because he had no motor activity in his limbs.

She explained, "A lot of scientific decisions went into (our decision). ... We trained him intensely to make sure that there wasn't any possibility of recovery before we took this next step."

Since the therapy began, Summers said his life has changed.

He said, "Now I can stand. I've gotten my confidence back to just go out in the public, and be out in the world again. As well as I work on standing for one hour a day, as well as voluntary movement. I can move my toes, ankles, knees and hips, all on command. And that's just an amazing feeling to be able to get that back."

Summers said his next goal is to stand and walk "completely normal(ly)"

He said, "I'm working towards that every day."

Harkema said there's a long road ahead.

"There's technology that needs to be developed, and more research, and testing it in other people," she said. "But it just opened up a whole new set of opportunities."

Going mainstream with these therapies, Harkema said is the goal.

"That's what we're working towards," she said. "An important aspect is that there's knowledge we have now that can make incremental changes in people's lives. And so we need to start there, and then just continue to learn more about the circuitry and how we can take advantage of it to improve function and people's quality of life."

Wragge asked, "The doctor said you'll never take another step again. What did you tell him?"

"I said, 'I'm going to walk,'" Summers said.

Wragge said, "And you're doing it."


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Spinal Cord Injury Leads to Rugby

There I was, flat on my back in intensive care at Harborview Medical Center with a 35-pound weight screwed to my skull keeping the pressure off of my two shattered vertebrae and severed spinal cord. Now what?

"Have you ever heard of Murderball?" The sweet-voiced, redheaded nurse asked me through a slight grin.

I was injured Memorial Day Weekend of 2007 while diving into Lake Chelan. A mound of sand under the water broke my fall and my C6 and C7 vertebrae, severing my spinal cord and leaving me paralyzed from the chest down and without the use of my fingers.

Fast forward through three years of rehabilitation and adjustments to my new life on wheels and there I was, strapped into a mass of metal and rubber, about to embark on an experience that would change my life forever.

Murderball, also known by the more marketable name of quad rugby, is a fast-paced, full-contact sport that is played by quadriplegics and others with various disabilities, the only requirement being significant impairment to at least three limbs.

It is a highly competitive, sometimes violent sport that is played in specialized reinforced wheelchairs that are built to take a serious beating - which they most definitely do.

Four players from each team pass a volleyball back and forth on a basketball court and score by crossing an 8-meter goal line at the opponent's end of the court. The defensive team tries to prevent the scoring at all costs; by ramming and hooking and, if they hit them right, even toppling opposing players.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. After 13 hours of surgery to stabilize my crushed spine, I spent four weeks in intensive care and eight more in inpatient trauma rehab. Three months after I rolled into the hospital on a stretcher, I rolled back out in a 600-pound power wheelchair.

The next two years were filled with rigorous physical therapy as I tried to regain enough strength in my arms to perform basic tasks needed for independence. At 22 years old, adjusting to my new life proved to be extremely difficult at times.

I never imagined that even the simplest tasks could be so challenging. The first time I put on my own pants was an exhausting cross between a wrestling match and a balancing act. Sometimes it was such a struggle that I debated the importance of wearing pants at all.

Once I decided pants were a necessity, I found out how hard it is to turn a doorknob when you can't move your fingers, or reach that ice tray in the back of the freezer. And I had never before noticed how many steps there are in the world.

More than a year after my hospital stay, I was finally able to trade in my power wheelchair for a much more manageable - and stylish - manual one. This gave me the freedom and self-confidence to resume some of my favorite activities, like sampling the beer at the local watering hole.

I got involved with quad rugby after a chance encounter with Jeremy Hannaford (who stole my handicap parking space at that very watering hole). He also suffered from a significant spinal cord injury and happened to be one of the captains of the Seattle Slam, Washington's only sanctioned quad rugby team.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Paralyzed rugby player's brilliant surgeon: "90% is in your head"

Taieri teenager Austen Haig remains positive, despite a serious spinal injury suffered in a club rugby match last month.

Haig (19) injured his spine while playing hooker for the Taieri Colts side at Peter Johnstone Park on April 16, and is now in Burwood Hospital, in Christchurch.

His prognosis is not clear yet, and his mother Helen says it could be six to eight weeks before the exact damage, and whether he can walk again, are known.

But good news had come over the past couple of days.

"Yesterday [Sunday] he managed to move his right foot, just wiggled it a bit. Then today they managed to get him out of bed and into a wheelchair for half an hour and that will be gradually increased this week," she said from Christchurch.

Haig, an accounting and chemistry student at the University of Otago, injured his back five minutes into the game, when he was hit at a breakdown.

An ambulance was called and Mrs Haig, who was not initially at the game, also came racing to see what had happened.

"It looked pretty awful. His body was lying there and his legs were all skewed off to the side."

Haig was taken to Dunedin Hospital where it was discovered he had dislocated his C6 vertebrae and his spinal cord had been crushed.

Through the use of weights on a halo brace, the dislocated vertebrae was put back in place at Dunedin Hospital. He was flown to Christchurch Hospital the next day, where his C5 and C6 vertebrae were fused together.

It would take another few weeks before the swelling of hids spinal cord came down, and there could be a clear prognosis.

"We're just at the waiting stage at the moment but the good thing is the spinal cord is still intact."

At the moment, he was a tetraplegic but Helen Haig said her son's attitude had been amazing and he kept everyone thinking positively.

"He mentioned to me how he is keeping everyone together. His attitude is just great, just thinking totally positive. There is none of that 'poor me' sort of stuff.

"He's telling me we can get through this. When he had the first operation the surgeon said that 90% of the recovery is in your head and he has remembered that."


"Insurance" money runs out on quad

ROBBINS, Ill. -- Rocky Clark sometimes dreams he's running track, racing around the oval as he once did, his heart pumping fast and his long legs a blur as he crossed the finish line.

Just thinking about it makes him smile.

Some nights, though, he has another recurring dream, this one pure fantasy. He sees himself in white shorts and track shoes, running again, then stopping, kneeling in prayer before a church door, somehow unable to make it inside.

When he awakens, Rocky Clark inhabits a world largely confined to four walls. Surrounding him are glass-encased autographed footballs and cherished memories of his glory days: Blue-and-gold ribbons. Trophies. And giant varsity letters from Eisenhower High School, his alma mater.

Clark can do little but swivel his head. He can't move his arms or legs. More than a decade ago, he was paralyzed from the neck down after being tackled in a high school football game. After nine months in rehab and a hospital bill approaching $1 million, he went home.

As a quadriplegic, his long-term prospects were slim. And over the years, there have been regular hospital stays and health scares – no surprise, considering Clark's fragile condition. He has just one working lung. His right lung is partially paralyzed; certain infections could kill him.

And yet Clark has endured. His doctor credits top-notch, round-the-clock home health care paid for by the school district's $5 million catastrophic health insurance policy. But that's run out, so the nurses and money are gone, replaced by his mother, growing financial pressures and a new sense of foreboding.

Rasul "Rocky" Clark beat the odds. And now he wonders if he's paying a price for his survival.


A week before his injury, Rocky Clark vowed to his mother that he'd strike it rich as an athlete one day and buy her a house.

Annette Clark remembers her son as an acrobatic kid who mastered back flips at age 7, ran too fast for a spanking and was always throwing balls and rocks – the inspiration of his nickname, bestowed upon him by an uncle. He took up track, football and baseball and excelled at all three, collecting ribbons, trophies and medals.

"I love awards," he now says. "It's a need thing."

On a warm September night in 2000 just four plays into the game, Clark – a high school junior and running back for Eisenhower's Cardinals – was grabbed by the shoulder and tackled. His head hit the ground. At first, he recalls, there was silence.

"When I started coming around, I heard a bunch of ringing," he says. "My whole body was vibrating, like a spring. I felt cold air. I tried to get up, but I couldn't."

Clark's neck had been broken in two places.

He spent about nine months at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, wondering if his injury was some sort of cruel payback for something he had done in his 16 years.

"I said to myself ... `Maybe there was something I said I shouldn't have said. Maybe there was something I did that I shouldn't have done,'" he recalls. "I didn't do anybody wrong. I didn't get in trouble. ... I prayed every day. I didn't go to church all the time ... but I was good."

"Then," he says, pausing for a breath, "I realized things happen. Life doesn't always give us what we expect. I've got a spinal-cord injury, but there's nothing wrong with my brain. I've got a strong spirit and courage. You've just got to learn to deal with it."

Clark finished high school, donning cap and gown and having a friend wheel him across the stage so he could accept his diploma. He took some college courses, but a full-time schedule proved too difficult. (He'd like to return, but can't afford it.) He became a volunteer coach at Eisenhower, attending games.

All of it was made possible by the care provided through the district's insurance policy. And Clark says when the $5 million policy ran out several months ago, he assumed it would be renewed.

But it was not.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

Pedal to the metal for spinal cord injury research

A plan to funnel a $3 surcharge from every moving traffic violation — an estimated $11 million a year — to a spinal cord injury research fund cleared a key California Assembly hurdle Tuesday and could be approved by lawmakers by the end of summer.

Assembly Bill 190 — renewing the so-called Roman Reed law, named after a former Chabot College football player paralyzed during a tackle — was approved 4-3 by the Assembly’s public safety committee. It will go to the appropriations committee next month, then to the full Assembly and the Senate.

“This is by far the biggest step. It will be another two months for everything to play out,” said Reed, who runs the Roman Reed Foundation in Fremont. “We’re going to pass this.”

State legislators in 2000 agreed to fund spinal injury paralysis research through the state’s general fund and renewed the legislation in 2005. In all, the fund overseen by University of California, Irvine, has provided $14.6 million over 10 years to 120 projects.