Forty-one-year old Jennifer French accomplished what would have once seemed impossible. Despite being paralyzed, French walked down the aisle at her recent wedding to her long time beau Tim French, thanks to the help of the Cleveland Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) Center.
On Friday the 13th in 1998, French and her friends decided to go on a moonlit snowboarding run down a New England mountain. Everyone made it safely to the bottom of the slopes, with the exception of French, who hit a patch of ice in an accident that changed her life.
At the time of the accident, French was dating Tim, who scaled the mountainside looking for her. When he found her face down in the snow, he ran for help. It took two snowmobiles to rescue her, and she was transported to a hospital where she received the news she never expected to hear–her spinal cord injury at the base of the neck.
The injury was not complete, but she was left being a quadriplegic, leaving her with the ability to feel some sensation in her legs, but unable to control the movement of the muscles. Her hands were also somewhat impaired.
“I went through this denial stage, where I thought there’s got to be a cure out there somewhere,” French said. “I went through this process of trying to find a spinal cord injury cure, and I soon found there really wasn’t one. Once I came to that realization, I took the stance that if I have this injury, how do I keep myself healthy?”
Her effort to keep herself healthy is part of what made her eligible for a research study at the Cleveland FES Center, which has played a major role in developing technologies that help restore mobility to patients with spinal cord injuries and relieve chronic pain. The center works with electrical stimulation and was behind the diaphragm-pacing system that Christopher Reeve used to breathe without a ventilator machine.
The new devices, for which French was part of a study, are known as implantable neuroprostheses.
“With this system, they have a few different types of electrodes implanted, right in the muscle tissue–they’re in my quads, my hamstrings, my glutes and my lower back,” French said. “Those electrodes have leads (sophisticated insulated wires) that come off of them, and they go up to a receiver implanted in abdomen. They are all fully implanted in the body, so no wires are coming out.”
“The electrodes deliver small pulses of current to the muscles, and these pulses of current are milliamps–10- or 20-thousandths of an amp,” Dr. P. Hunter Peckham, the FES Center’s director at the time of the study, said. “They send pulses to these nerves, and when they’re received by the nerves, at a conversational level, those nerves don’t know that those pulses come from the brain or from someplace else. All they do is carry information.”
“What we then have to do, artificially, is coordinate the action of those muscles together so the action to stand or sit down or to walk has all of them working in concert with another to perform the major body action,” Peckham continued. “And then, we have to give the user a way of controlling that.”
With the push of a button, French provides her muscle with the temporary electrical impulses it needs for movement. That movement allowed her to walk down the aisle in her recent wedding to Tim, who stuck by her side all the years following her accident.
“It was something the technology gave me that I probably would never be able to have otherwise,” French said of the experience. “For that ceremony, it really took away the disability. It made it feel a lot more normal being able to walk down the aisle with my dad next to me. It was so surreal and emotional.”