U of M, Hennepin Healthcare study gives hope to those told they would never walk again

New research by a local team of doctors is proving to be life-changing for people paralyzed by spinal cord injuries.

It’s giving hope to thousands who previously thought they would never walk again. It took the University of Minnesota and Hennepin Healthcare two years to get through all of the paperwork, including grant approvals.

It’s especially unique because doctors are studying patients who have been paralyzed for multiple years.

Once surgeons finally met Kathy Allen, who took part in the paralysis study, they were preparing for the disappointment that it might not work.

Instead, the success brought some of those surgeons to tears.

“I was injured Oct. 16, 2016,” said Allen. “Sleepwalking out of my bedroom window.”

Allen is candid about the accident that nearly severed her spinal cord and paralyzed her from the waist down. She has more hope now than ever, though, about the possibility she may walk again. She became the first patient to take part in an epidural stimulation study with a team of doctors from the University of Minnesota and Hennepin Healthcare.

“That’s the lead, where it contacts the spinal cord,” explained Dr. Uzma Samadani, Associate Professor in the Department of Neurosurgery University of Minnesota Medical School and Neurosurgeon with Hennepin Healthcare.

Samadani described how surgically implanted electrodes along the spinal cord are connected to a battery pack. Software stimulates the nerves that go down to muscles in the legs. So far, six out of seven spinal cord injury patients that doctors have operated on have seen movement.

Allen’s left toe moved for the first time 11 years to the day after she was paralyzed.

“It was amazing,” she said. “I never thought I could do that.”

“It’s the greatest achievement of my surgical career,” added Samadani.

Samadani points out it’s not just about restoring movement, but also bodily function.

“That plays a huge role in things like bowel and bladder control, sexual function, blood pressure control,” she said. “These are really important things for people who don’t have them.”  

These days, Allen is moving her legs. She is standing and walking with assistance thanks to an intense fitness program and her batter pack turned on around the clock.

“My core muscles are actually engaged when the device is on, so I’m not wobbly anymore,” Allen said. “When I turn the car, I don’t fall over and I can wheel nicer.”

How her life and the life of other paralysis patients improves remains to be seen.

“I think the time for saying to someone, ‘You’ll never walk again,’ that time is over,” said Samadani.

Both the patient and the doctor in this story credit the Minnesota Legislature for making the funding for this program possible.

Now that the study has been recently published, the next steps include more research and working toward FDA approval. The overall goal is to someday make this treatment available to the more than 290,000 people nationwide living with spinal cord injuries.