With implant, patient can move on his own

Monday, October 15, 2001

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Rod Bobblitt hasn't had the use of his legs for more than 17 years.

A spinal cord injury suffered in a motorcycle accident at age 15 stripped him of any sensation or function below his chest. For months, he struggled to master tasks like showering and getting in and out of bed -- tasks made much more complex by his dependence on a wheelchair.

An experimental device implanted in his abdomen is giving Bobblitt hope again. Hope, where once there was despair.

"It's unbelievable, really," said Bobblitt, a 32-year-old mechanic who lives alone in rural Anderson County in central Kentucky. "I'm doing things now I never imagined I'd do again."

The device, about the size of a chocolate bar, is attached to several muscle groups in Bobblitt's upper legs and lower back. It allows him to stand for brief periods and even move short distances using a walker.

Eight electrodes snake away from the device. When set off by Bobblitt using an external trigger, an electrical signal stimulates the muscles, stiffening them and forcing him into a standing position.

"The muscles can only take about 90 seconds or two minutes of stimulation before Rod gets fatigued," said James Abbas, assistant professor at the University of Kentucky's Center for Biomedical Engineering. "In addition to using the device to practice standing at home, he also has an exercise program designed to help strengthen his leg muscles, which haven't been used much over the years."

'I'm the bionic man'

Using a walker to help with balance, Bobblitt can reach over to grab something from his workbench or transfer to his bed or a couch without sliding or putting tremendous strain on his upper body.

"It makes me feel great knowing I'm the bionic man, on the cutting edge of technology," he said with a chuckle. "I can't describe what I felt when I stood for the first time. "

Bobblitt is one of 12 patients testing the device at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center. The device was developed as part of a broader research project at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where Bobblitt underwent an eight-hour operation in February.

This type of research could be a stepping stone to future advances in technology that may someday help those with spinal cord injuries become more mobile and self-dependent, said Reggie Edgerton, professor of physiological science and neurobiology at University of California, Los Angeles.

"You have to try to put yourself in the position of the person with the injury," Edgerton said. "For some, just to be able to stand for a moment or move a few feet is a significant, even life-changing, experience."

Abbas said he hopes the medical center will begin to perform the surgery to implant the device within a year or two.

Until then, Abbas and others will work with Bobblitt to build his endurance and the strength in his legs, monitor his progress and collaborate with Case Western on future applications.

"He's a terrific patient, one who obviously doesn't have the fear gene," said Nancy Quick, one of Bobblitt's physical therapists.

After years spent learning to live and thrive in a wheelchair, Bobblitt has a new set of goals.

"I don't really focus on walking," he said. "But just being able to stand up out of the chair and transfer to the bed or get something off the counter makes me wonder what else might be possible."

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