Regional News in Review – June 2011

Procedure changes life After Rob Summers was struck by a hit-and-run driver in 2006 and left paralyzed from the chest […]

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Procedure changes life

After Rob Summers was struck by a hit-and-run driver in 2006 and left paralyzed from the chest down, he faced the prospect of spending the rest of his life using a wheelchair. And despite three years of intensive therapy, he showed no signs of improving. But after becoming the first patient to undergo an experimental treatment, he can now do something no one else in his condition has ever been able to do: stand up; move his hips, knees and ankles; wiggle his toes; and even take a few steps.

“This procedure has completely changed my life,” Summers, 25, of Portland, Ore., said of the treatment, which involved stimulating his spinal cord with implanted electrodes. “For someone who for four years was unable to even move a toe, to have the freedom and ability to stand on my own is the most amazing feeling.”

The device, called Restore-ADVANCED, is sold by Fridley-based Medtronic for a different purpose—to control pain. Medtronic wasn’t involved in the study, though it supports “exploration of new applications for spinal cord stimulation,” the company said in an emailed statement. “We are intrigued by the results of the study and pleased the patient is doing well,” Medtronic said.

Summers, an Oregon State University championship pitcher before his accident, still must use his wheelchair much of the time. His doctors cautioned that much more research is needed before other paralyzed patients could try the treatment or they would know how much movement it might restore. But the researchers and others said Summers’ improvement is unprecedented and could herald a new era for at least some paralysis victims.

“This is a breakthrough,” said Susan Harkema of the University of Louisville (Ky.), who led the research, which was described in a paper to be published online by the journal Lancet. Researchers previously have been able to use electrical stimulation of muscles to produce some movement in patients with spinal cord injuries.

But Summers marks the first time any paralyzed patient has regained the ability to consciously move parts of the body by directly stimulating the spinal cord, which apparently reactivates the nerve circuits that remain intact. “It sounds like a pun, but this report is ‘an important step’ in a process of scientific discovery and translation,” said Naomi Kleitman of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, which funded the research with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.

The treatment involves surgically implanting a small strip of electrodes along the lower spinal cord that sends electrical signals designed to mimic those that had been sent by the brain to stimulate movement. [Source: Washington Post]


New school serves students with autism

The Twin Cities area will have a new private school this fall, to serve students with autism. The Minnesota Autism Center School is opening its doors in Eagan. The fourth through 12th-grade school will offer small classes, a chance for children to learn at their own pace and a focus on social skills as well as academics.

As more children have been diagnosed with autism in recent years, public schools have expanded and fine-tuned services for those students. As many as one in 110 children are diagnosed with autism, which affects social interaction and communication, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Twin Cities has a number of public school and a few charter school programs already dedicated to students with autism.

“We don’t feel public schools are deficient,” said Kathryn Marshall, the new school’s executive director. “But kids with autism sometimes require highly specialized services, and public schools might not have enough time and enough resources to offer them.”

The Eagan school is opening on the former Tesseract campus. Enrollment will be capped at 80 students, with no more than 10 pupils per class. The school year will last 11 months. Marshall said tuition would vary greatly depending on a child’s therapy needs; the school will offer some needbased scholarships.

Barbara Luskin, a consulting psychologist with the Autism Society of Minnesota, said specialized schools can more readily address the behavioral needs of children with autism. [Source: Pioneer Press] 


Miracle League continues to grow

A parcel of land on the west side of the Bielenberg Sports Complex in Woodbury is hardly fit yet for baseball, but nine-year-old Bryce Madsen of Woodbury is still pleased. The young wheelchair user has spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease that causes his muscles to lose function. He currently must travel all the way to Blaine to play in the North Metro Miracle League, an organization providing opportunities for children with disabilities to play ball.

Madsen and other east metro area children are looking forward to the construction of a new Miracle League field in Woodbury, on the site by the Bielenberg Sports Complex. The Woodbury Rotary Club is raising money for the planned field, raising $130,000 for the rubber turf. Now it needs help from contractors and suppliers to raise the remaining $90,000 to cover costs for gravel, blacktop and amenities such as dugouts and fencing, said Rotary Club President Cork Wicker. Wicker said construction won’t begin until all the needed money is in hand, but he expects that the 110- foot field will be completed by August, allowing children to field grounders, bat and circle the bases.

“It opens their eyes to things they might have never imagined,” said Rotary member Alan Henaman. “It brings people together. The game is the connector.” The Woodbury field is named in honor of Jeff Hanson, a former state representative from Woodbury who passed away a few years ago. Other fields are set to open this summer in Lakeville, St. Cloud and Duluth. Others are on the drawing board in Brainerd and St. Paul. [Source: Star Tribune]


Vale Educational Center will close

A highly-regarded Eagan educational center for students with disabilities will close due to a dip in enrollment. Vale Educational Center in Eagan, the Burnsville school district’s program for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, will be missed by many students and their families. The closing mirrors a statewide trend as fewer students with disabilities, ranging from severe depression and anxiety to bipolar and obsessive-compulsive disorder have attended full-time programs such as Vale.

While some advocates see that as an encouraging sign about mainstream education, others say that the loss of small, highly personal schools will hurt some special needs students Several years ago the

Vale Center served as many as 90 students, from kindergartners to seniors. Enrollment at the center, which shares a building with the district’s alternative high school, has dropped to about 50 students. Vale offers small classes, including social skills classes that help student maneuver through difficult real-life scenarios through games and lessons.

In the age of the federal No Child Left Behind law, Principal Jayne Tiedemann said, covering standards in English, math, science and social studies with a smaller staff is tough. And high school teachers licensed for those courses as well as special education have become tougher to find.

More than 15,000 students ages 6 to 21—or about 12 percent of Minnesotans that age—were diagnosed with emotional behavioral disabilities, or EBDs, last year.

Statewide 10 years ago, almost 20 percent of students with emotional disorders attended the special classes. This year, slightly more than 11 percent do, with the remainder spending at least some time in mainstream classrooms.

Reasons for the decline vary, said Barbara Troolin, the Minnesota Department of Education special education director. Many students with previously diagnosed emotional behavioral disabilities are now diagnose with autism and directed to different programs. And budget-strapped districts are scaling back programs that require separate facilities. [Source: Pioneer Press]


Nursing Home Case Winds Down

Two young women accused of abusing residents of an Albert Lea nursing home have complied with probation and appear to be on the right path, so they won’t have to serve more jail time. Freeborn County District Court Judge Steve Schwab waived the second 60-day jail stint for Brianna Broitzman and Ashton Larson May 17.

The abuse occurred in 2008 and outraged advocates for the elderly Schwab reviewed the motions from the defendants and reports from probation before deciding to waive the jail time. Schwab said the purpose of a staggered sentence is for rehabilitation and to be an incentive for defendants “to turn their lives around.”

According to the Albert Lea Tribune, he also asked each a single question during the hearing: “Do you now understand that what you did was wrong?” Broitzman answered, “Yes I do, very much.” Larson answered, “Without a doubt.” In 2010, Schwab sentenced Broitzman and Larson, both 21, to a staggered 180-day jail sentence after each being convicted of three counts of disorderly conduct by a caregiver. Each count represented a different victim at the nursing home.

Since then the two young women served jail time and have taken other steps to turn their lives around, including counseling and the writing of letters of apologies to the families of their victims Schwab said if the victims’ families want to have a face-to-face meeting with Broitzman and Larson, they can request to do so. About 10 family members of victims were in attendance to hear the outcome. [Source: Albert Lea Tribune]


Assault suspect linked to crimes

A man sentenced in May for the sexual assault of a woman with Down syndrome on a city bus has been linked to another sexual assault of a vulnerable adult. Herbert Lee House III’s conviction required that he submit a DNA sample and it matched evidence from the previously unsolved sexual assault in St. Paul, according to an affidavit in support of a search warrant filed last month. The unsolved assault occurred after House had contact with the woman on the bus. The case remains under investigation. Metro Transit and St. Paul Police have been investigating the crimes;

House was sentenced May 15 to five years and two months in prison for third degree criminal sexual conduct. One of two teenage witnesses told police that a man, later identified as House, got on a Metro Transit bus in Lowertown on Feb. 22. The victim, who boarded the bus with a group of other disabled adults and their personal care attendant, sat down in a seat near House. House moved next to the victim.

Witnesses said he forced her to perform a sex act and then tried to make her get off of the bus with him. The PCA intervened and the victim didn’t leave the bus. House was also charged Feb. 1 with disorderly conduct for alleged unwanted touching of a woman at a Sixth and Minnesota streets bus shelter downtown. [Source: Pioneer Press]


He crafts beads to help others

Rick Taft woke up the morning of March 15, 2009, and couldn’t move. A stroke had paralyzed his right side. He spent a month at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, then another two weeks at a rehabilitation center.

“I thought I could get back to it, but, you know, if you knock over a tray of parts . . . that’s thousands of dollars down the drain,” the 64-year-old Woodbury resident said.

“To pick up a cup of coffee takes some concentration now. I was stuck with reinventing myself.” It took months of therapy sessions at Courage Center St. Croix in Stillwater, but Taft learned to speak again and has regained the use of his right side. “I need a reason to do what I do,” he said. “I need something to do to be useful. Courage Center helped give me a reason for being.” Taft was honored last month at the center’s annual breakfast.

Taft originally had planned to become a musician. He attended McPhail College of Music in Minneapolis for a year before he was drafted to serve in Vietnam. When he returned to Minnesota, he used the GI Bill to become a cabinetmaker. Because of his stroke, Taft now focuses on smaller items such as spoons, bookmarks, key chains, barrettes and small beads he calls “worry woods.” He and his wife, Ginny, gave one sumac “worry wood” to each person who attended the Courage St. Croix breakfast. Taft said he is drawn to sumac because of his condition.

“Most people look down on it,” he said. “It’s an annoyance. It’s a second-rate shrub. As a disabled person, I no longer have the usefulness that I used to feel, so it’s important to me to feel needed and useful.” [Source: Pioneer Press]


Lakeville to open new Miracle Field

The rubberized playing surface for Lakeville’s Miracle League ball field was poured in May, just days before Twins great Harmon Killebrew died of esophageal cancer.

The field, which will be used by children with disabilities, was named for the Twins great. Killebrew, 74, loved baseball and kids and tried to direct his giving to bring them together. He had helped Miracle League athletes bat and run bases, and had raised money for their needs. Killebrew was involved with Miracle League since he helped open the league’s first Minnesota field in Blaine in May 2006, said Kevin Thoresen, founder of the Minnesota Miracle League.

“He came up to me and said ‘I love this. I want to be more involved,’” Thoresen told the Star Tribune. “He saw and knew the significance of giving every child a chance to play baseball, and that’s what the Miracle League is about.” In the past five years, the Harmon Killebrew Foundation has donated more than $250,000 for the smooth cushioned fields, including a significant gift toward Lakeville’s $400,000 field, said Brian Roseen, director of the South Metro Miracle League. Killebrew made the largest of dozens of gifts for the Lakeville field, he said.

Roseen has received approval from the Harmon Killebrew Foundation for Lakeville’s scoreboard to bear their logo with Harmon Killebrew Field and No. 3 on it. He said he has invited foundation officials and Killebrew’s widow, Nita Killebrew, for the field’s dedication in late June.

Lakeville’s will be Minnesota’s seventh Miracle League field for players with disabilities. Other fields are in Blaine, Minnetonka, Rochester, Mankato, Moorhead, and coming in June, St. Cloud, Thoresen said. [Source: Star Tribune]


Fired worker claims disability 

Former Carver city building inspector Raymond Williams, who fell asleep for more than an hour in an office lunchroom, is fighting back. Williams has filed a federal complaint alleging that the city discriminated against him on the basis of disability. Williams said that the medication he takes for rheumatoid arthritis made him unusually tired and that the city refused to accommodate his disability.

Disability advocates say cases like his could become more common as the workforce ages and as workers need medication for disabilities or other health conditions. “This kind of case is not that unusual,” said Pamela Hoopes, legal director of the Minnesota Disability Law Center.

Williams, 60, had worked for the southwest metro city since 2002. He said there had been no other sleeping incidents before the January incident which cost him his job. City officials have countered that there were other reasons for his dismissal including insubordination, violation of city policies and use of city time and equipment for personal benefit. ADA Minnesota is an information and referral service for disability issues.

Program Manager Cindy Held Tarshish said questions about medications and job performance can be tricky. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects the disabled from discrimination in their jobs. Employers must provide “reasonable accommodations” for workers who request them. Trying to work out such changes is required, as long as they don’t impose “undue hardship” on the employer, she said. “But it’s not a free ride,” Tarshish said. “ADA is not an entitlement program.” Disabled workers still must do essential job functions with or without accommodations, she said. [Source: Star Tribune]


Man sentenced for robbery, beating 

A 25-year-old St. Paul man was sentenced to four years in prison for beating and robbing a 16-year-old autistic boy in December. Anthony Ramos must also register as a predatory offender, as part of the sentence handed down by Ramsey County District Judge Salvador Rosas

The 16-year-old victim was walking to a grocery store at SunRay Shopping Center Dec. 23 when he met Ramos and three other people. One of the suspects is 15 years old. They demanded and stole money from the victim, as well as his CD player, headphones, a cell phone and a camera. Charges filed in the case state that Ramos put handcuffs on the boy and fired a BB gun at his head.

Ramos, who pleaded guilty in April to felony kidnapping and first-degree aggravated robbery, is the first of three adults to be sentenced in connection with the case.

Tiffany Ann Clock, 21, of Columbia Heights, and Trenton E. Johnson, 22, of St. Paul, were charged with aggravated first-degree robbery and kidnapping. They await prosecution. Information on the juvenile suspect wasn’t available. Ramos had asked Rosas to sentence him to probation because he suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was 13, according to court records. [Source: Star Tribune]

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