McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Brendan Loney, who was paralyzed in a diving accident, goes through a therapy session on Feb. 24 in Golden Valley, Minn. Weekly therapy helps him stay fit.
MINNEAPOLIS — Brendan Loney can’t move his legs, but once a week, he sure does run.
Suspended by a harness from the ceiling at Courage Center in Golden Valley, Minn., the 23-year stares ahead at a mirror while two therapists move his stocky legs across a treadmill. A third therapist straddles the treadmill and keeps Loney balanced. A fourth controls the machine and rotates in when the others get tired.
For Loney, who was paralyzed from the neck down in a 2009 diving accident, the exhausting “locomotor” therapy serves several purposes. It helps his body fight infections. It keeps his muscles strong.
And maybe, just maybe, it will keep his body ready for a breakthrough spine medicine that can give him back lost mobility.
“I’m trying to stay as fit as I can,” the former hockey player said, “and hopefully be a good contestant when they do come up with something.”
Hope like that was once drummed out of spine injury patients — especially for those with the most severe injuries — in part because doctors saw the despair that set in when patients clung to the notion of a recovery that never came.
But at some point between the paralyzing injuries to actor Christopher Reeve in 1995 and teen hockey player Jack Jablonski in December, that philosophy changed.
“We used to always say we’re working around this (injury),” said Dr. Karl Sandin, physician-in-chief at the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis. “Now, it’s more nuanced.”
New treatments are starting to defy old notions about rehabilitation. Stem-cell transplants and other therapies are showing promise in research. But exercise has become the key. Patients who used to be left dormant are now being told to get in shape for the day if — some even say when — a meaningful treatment comes along.
It’s a delicate balance between today’s realities and motivation for tomorrow, said Dr. Gary Goldish, director of the Spinal Cord Injury and Disorder Center at the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center. “How do we balance the patient’s hope for the future cure with the need for them to learn maximum function (today)?”
The spinal cord is the messenger from the brain telling the body what to do. It threads through the cervical, thoracic and lumbar portions of the spine, connecting at key junctures to nerves that control specific muscles. At the third vertebrae in the cervical column, or C3, the cord connects to nerves controlling the diaphragm. Complete injuries at or above C3 generally leave patients unable to breathe or move any extremities on their own.
An injury at C5 would leave patients without control of their legs or hands, but limited arm and shoulder movements. (Jablonski was initially diagnosed with a C5 injury after he crashed head-first into the boards. He has since regained some motion in his arms. His family reported last week he was able to grasp a tortilla chip and feed himself.)
Recovery has generally been more likely when spinal cord injuries are “incomplete,” which means some portion of the cord is intact and sending messages from the brain past the injury site.
Susan Fink was told she would never walk again after a cross-country skiing accident 12 years ago, when she had to be sledded out of the Wisconsin wilderness by a sheriff’s deputy with a snowmobile.
Today, the 61-year-old walks with a walker around her home in St. Louis Park, Minn., but uses a power wheelchair everywhere else. Three times a week, she rides an exercise bicycle at Sister Kenny, using electrical stimulation to coax her leg muscles to move and pedal.
Doctors say her fitness would make her a good candidate for a next generation treatment, but Fink just wants to exercise to prevent back pain and retain her current mobility.
“I’m doing it all to maintain what I’ve got,” she said. “It’s enough work to do that.”