Whether or not you agree with Christopher Reeve’s agenda, the disability community did lose a great advocate in October. His ability to bring the concerns of disabled individuals into the limelight was uncanny. He raised millions of dollars for research in the hopes of finding a cure for spinal cord injury and related conditions. His main agenda in recent years was stem cell research; however, he did utilize and promote a variety of assistive technologies.
For instance, voice-recognition was his mode of operating an IBM computer. Dragon NaturallySpeaking is a premier software program with the ability to work with almost any Windows-based software program. It allowed him to control both the keyboard and mouse through speaking into a microphone. It does not work for every individual on a ventilator, but it did prove to work for Reeve.
Special devices have been developed to help people with disabilities improve and maintain their ability to function. These devices include phrenic nerve pacemakers and Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) systems. Both of these devices were utilized by Reeve.
Phrenic Nerve Pacemakers
These devices are also called breathing pacemakers. For some patients, these devices provide freedom from a ventilator. The pacemakers are implanted beneath the skin from the diaphragm up to the phrenic nerves. Electrical impulses are sent to the phrenic nerve to stimulate the diaphragm to start air going in and out of the lungs.
This system in many ways looks like a bicycle into which the individual is strapped. Electrical stimulation, along with the movement of muscles, benefits people with paralysis like Reeve. He used his system on a daily basis. FES systems are being improved and tested to facilitate and regulate bladder and bowel function.
Advancements in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
There have been some very promising developments in the field for the rehabilitation of patients with spinal cord injury. One such treatment is weight-assisted ambulation. The patient is placed on a treadmill and, with the assistance of therapists, is re-trained how to walk. The hope is that this will capitalize on the ability of the spinal cord itself to learn motor patterns.
Some patients are candidates for tendon transfers that allow for improvement in arm or leg function. Plus, there are implantable nerve stimulators to improve muscle firing in the arm. In addition, devices are available to allow patients to activate their paralyzed limbs for aerobic exercise.
Can Paralysis be Cured?
No one knows for sure where current developments and research will lead. As Christopher Reeve stated in his biography, “When JKF said in the early 60s he wanted to send someone to the moon that decade, there were many doubters. So there is no telling what the next few years can bring us.”