Three patients with waist down paralysis were able to walk again after doctors implanted an electrical device into their spines, reconnecting the severed communication between the neurons in their legs and their brains.
The recipients of this seemingly miraculous line of treatment included 29-year-old Jered Chinnock from Tomah, Wisconsin; Kelly Thomas, 23, from Homosassa, Florida; and Jeff Marquis, 35, belonging to Louisville, Kentucky.
Chinnock was the beneficiary of a spinal procedure performed by surgeons at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, as part of a study that was published Monday (Sep. 24) in the journal ‘Nature Medicine.’
Thomas and Marquis underwent a similar procedure as voluntary participants in another study conducted at the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center at the University of Louisville, also published on Sep. 24 in the ‘New England Journal of Medicine.”
Basically, the study involved implanting an array of electrodes below the injured section of the spine and a pacemaker-sized spinal cord stimulator under the skin in the abdominal region, with communication between the two established through a connecting wire.
The implanted devices are controlled remotely using a TV-type controller that allows doctors to regulate the voltage and even target specific areas for stimulation.
But, the implants alone could not have achieved the level of recovery witnessed in the patients if they were not backed by intensive training in a controlled environment, overseen by trained professionals, and, of course, a ton of willpower on the patients’ part.
While the procedure can likely bring about varying levels of mobility in SCI patients with some residual sensation below the injury level, the same can’t be said about patients with no sensation at all.
“The current study showed that recovery of walking, standing, and trunk mobility can occur under special circumstances with intensive training and electrical stimulation years after a spinal cord injury that caused complete leg paralysis,” study author Claudia A. Angeli (Ph.D.) and her co-authors wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine-published article.
“Persons with some degree of spared sensation below the level of injury may be more suitable candidates than those with no sensation, but this, and the durability of over-ground walking, requires investigation in larger groups of patients with spinal cord injury,” the authors concluded.
Three individuals – a father, a student and a chef – had their lives rudely interrupted and brought to a sudden standstill, literally, when they were left paralyzed after sustaining serious injuries to their spines in different mishaps, involving a snowmobile, a truck, and a mountain bike, respectively.
Fate had dealt them a cruel hand, leaving them with broken bodies; but could not break their spirit; their will to be able to walk again.
Here’s a brief look into each of their stories.
Jered Chinnock, 29, (Tomah, WI)
On that fateful day in February 2013, Jered Chinnock was having the time of his life with family and friends on a frozen lake in his neighborhood when his world came crashing down around him.
The snowmobile he was riding on hit a bump and he was thrown off it, right into the path of another snowmobile coming from behind.
“I just thought I got the wind knocked out of me and needed to catch my breath and released I couldn’t get up,” the Daily Mail has quoted him as saying.
The father-of-one sustained life-threatening injuries, including broken ribs, a punctured lung, and as many as three fractures to his spine.
While surgeons at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, were able to save his life, he wasn’t able to regain voluntary control of movement in his legs; in fact, he was incapable of any movement below the mid-torso level.
The surgeons repaired the damage to the spine using screws, but they had no solution, whatsoever, to fix the severed nerves responsible for ferrying signals back and forth from the brain to the legs.
“I was just pretty much set in my ways of going to be in my wheelchair the rest of my life,” Chinnock said – again, as quoted by the Daily Mail.
Having spent more than three years on a wheelchair, Chinnock got his ray of hope in 2016, when researchers at the Mayo Clinic put him on a program that combined rigorous physical therapy for a period of 22 weeks, followed by the electrode and spinal cord stimulator implants mentioned earlier.
Barely two weeks had passed after the implants when Chinnock was able to stand unaided and even managed to move his legs while suspended in a harness as if walking on air.
All Chinnock needs to do is think about standing or walking and the implanted system will come into play, allowing the exchange of signals between brain and legs.
“[Chinnock] was able to regain voluntary control of the movement in his legs. The patient’s own thoughts were able to drive this,” said Dr. Kendall Lee, a neurosurgeon at the Mayo Clinic whose team performed the surgery.
“We were able to get him to stand independently and be able to take his own steps.”
Kelly Thomas, 24, (Homosassa, FL)
On another fateful day, this time in July 2014, another life was drastically curtailed when Kelly Thomas’ truck flipped over multiple times before hitting a tree in a crash that left her paralyzed.
She regained consciousness in a hospital a couple of weeks after the crash, only to find out she had lost control of all movement from the chest down; Thomas was only 19 at the time.
Thomas underwent a similar procedure – weeks of physical therapy followed by implants, and all – and she’s now able to walk, although she has to focus hard on each step – and she can even talk as walks.
“The first day I took steps on my own was an emotional milestone in my recovery that I’ll never forget as one minute I was walking with the trainer’s assistance and, while they stopped, I continued walking on my own,’ she said in a press release.
She has gained back most of her muscle mass, gone is the nerve pain in her right foot, she has improved control over her bladder, and what’s more is that the implant has restored sexual function.
“I love it,” she says – about the implanted stimulator, in case you were wondering.
Jeff Marquis, 35, (Louisville, KY)
Jeff Marquis, a chef and an avid mountain biker, was living in Whitefish (Montana) when fate reared its ugly head once again.
“I was going down a trail that had a bunch of jumps that I normally skipped,” Marquis, who has, since, relocated to Louisville, Kentucky, told NBC News.
“That day, I hadn’t really decided whether I was going around them or I was going to try it for once. I went over it without jumping and I ended up breaking my neck.”
Marquis’ comeback story is more or less the same as Chinnock’s and Thomas’, although his rehabilitation took a little longer before he was able to take his first baby steps unaided.
“The first steps after my mountain biking accident were such a surprise, and I am thrilled to have progressed by continuing to take more steps each day,” he said in a press release.
Marquis says his stamina has improved and that he has “regained strength and the independence to do things I used to take for granted like cooking and cleaning.”