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SOUTH JORDAN — Jarrod Blackman was born into a motor sports family. He won his first motocross championship in 2009 while racing at home in South Africa.
He's fallen off his bike numerous times, sometimes at 100 mph. Each time, he's gotten up and continued the competition.
My goal is just to take one step at a time and get as much movement as I can.
–Jarrod Blackman, paralysis patient
But one day in January 2010, while not even racing, he decided to try out a new bike. In a freak accident in the wrong place at the wrong time, the bike, traveling at only 10 to 15 mph, slid on a patch of wet pavement. The wheel struck a hidden log.
Blackman hit a rock and broke his neck.
Now, on a machine called Therastride, Blackman, as a quadriplegic, is pushing the envelope — hoping for something paralysis victims often only envision in their dreams. In fact, that's why he chose Utah's nonprofit NEUROWORX, one of only five U.S. outpatient centers with this specialized equipment.
"I've seen lots of people roll in here in wheelchairs and walk out," he said. "My goal is just to take one step at a time and get as much movement as I can."
One step at a time was literal for former Skyline High School coach Sam Arashita. Though a quadriplegic 16 months ago, unable to walk or talk, he comes in now for rehab — no wheelchair, not even a cane.
"The director at NEUROWORX wanted me out of my wheelchair in January, and it happened," he said. "Gradually, little things have happened to me, and each time I've gained a little more strength."
So what's behind this device called Therastride that became a part of the Christopher Reeve Recovery Network about seven years ago? Think about what happens when we move. When we lean forward and stand and walk, the body fires reflex muscles in a pattern that are triggered in what is called our spinal cord memory.
"The cells of the spinal cord are set up in a network where they remember those actions (standing and walking) according to the sensory input that's delivered to them," explained NEUROWORX co-founder Dale Hull.
Using the machine, trained therapists work to retrigger that memory. As Blackman is suspended in a standing position via a harness, two therapists kneeling near his feet stimulate the flexor and extensor surfaces of the lower legs while manually moving him on a treadmill — as if walking. A third therapist standing in back of him shifts the hip from side to side and slightly rotates the body like we all do when we walk.
According to Hull, "What we're trying to do is tap into the spinal cord network that's already there and tell it ‘look, we want to keep doing that.'"
Blackman even duplicates swinging the arms in opposite directions — again an unconscious pattern we follow when we walk. Hull said the message to the spinal cord memory appears complicated, but it's really quite simple. "Here's the sensory input, figure out how to make it work, how to make these reflex responses of stand, step and walk."
What we're trying to do is tap into the spinal cord network that's already there and tell it ‘look, we want to keep doing that.'
–Dale Hull, NEUROWIX co-founder
It doesn't work for all those who are paralyzed. Former Marine Jan Thomas is going through the same rehab. Whether his spinal cord memory will respond to the cues is unknown at this early stage.
Blackman doesn't know what will happen to him either, but for now as he describes, "the sensation is weird. I have pins and needles in my legs and each time they take a step it sort of shoots a stronger jolt of pins and needles. I guess it feels pretty good. My goal is focused. I want to walk one day."
No one knows for sure why some quadriplegics and paraplegics take those steps while others don't.
Hull said we may have underestimated the plasticity of the nervous system. Perhaps it can reconfigure in ways we don't yet fully understand.
Co-owner Jan Black agreed with her partner. Regardless of outcome, all the paralysis victims moving through rehab every day at NEUROWORX are in their own way and at their own speed "breaking new ground."
The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation will be in Salt Lake City July 14 to talk about its work and the latest research on paralysis. The event, which is open to the public, is scheduled at the Little America Hotel from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. For more information call 801-363-6781 or go online to [email@example.com]( Email: )