October 15, 2001
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Rod Bobblitt hasn't had the use of his legs for more than 17 years.
A spinal cord injury suffered in a motorcycle accident at age 15 stripped him of any sensation or function below his chest. For months, he struggled to master simple, everyday tasks like showering and getting in and out of bed - tasks made much more complex by his dependence on a wheelchair.
An experimental device implanted in his abdomen is giving Bobblitt hope again. Hope, where once there was despair.
"It's unbelievable, really," said Bobblitt, a 32-year-old mechanic who lives alone in rural Anderson County in central Kentucky. "I'm doing things now I never imagined I'd do again after the accident."
The device, about the size of a chocolate bar, is attached to several muscle groups in Bobblitt's upper legs and lower back. It allows him to stand for brief periods and even move short distances using a walker.
Eight electrodes snake away from the device. When set off by Bobblitt using an external trigger, an electrical signal stimulates the muscles, stiffening them and forcing him into a standing position.
"The muscles can only take about 90 seconds or two minutes of stimulation before Rod gets fatigued," said James Abbas, assistant professor at the University of Kentucky's Center for Biomedical Engineering. "In addition to using the device to practice standing at home, he also has an exercise program designed to help strengthen his leg muscles, which haven't been used much over the years."
Using a walker to help with balance, Bobblitt can reach over to grab something from his workbench or transfer to his bed or a couch without sliding or putting tremendous strain on his upper body.
"It makes me feel great knowing I'm the bionic man, on the cutting edge of technology," he said with a chuckle. "I can't describe what I felt when I stood for the first time. Since then, the farthest I've walked is about 15 feet before I got tired and couldn't go anymore."
Bobblitt is one of 12 patients testing the device at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center. The device was developed as part of a broader research project at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where Bobblitt underwent an eight-hour operation in February.
This type of research could be a stepping stone to future advances in technology that may someday help those with spinal cord injuries become more mobile and self-dependent, said Reggie Edgerton, professor of physiological science and neurobiology at University of California, Los Angeles.
"You have to try to put yourself in the position of the person with the injury," Edgerton said. "For some, just to be able to stand for a moment or move a few feet is a significant, even life-changing, experience. Of course, you always want to get back everything. But, if nothing else, it's enough to give a person hope about what might be possible down the road.
"I think there are going to be significant breakthroughs in this area for many years to come, and these types of studies and developments certainly are headed in the right direction and, potentially, could be part of the solution."
As the University of Kentucky becomes more involved in the rehabilitation aspect of the program, Abbas said he hopes the medical center will begin to perform the surgery to implant the device within a year or two.
"Case Western developed the project over several years, and this is the first stage of transferring the procedure to other sites," Abbas said. "Hopefully, what we do here will be part of what the Food and Drug Administration uses to determine whether this is safe and effective."
Until then, Abbas and others will work with Bobblitt to build his endurance and the strength in his legs, monitor his progress and collaborate with Case Western on future applications.
"He's a terrific patient, one who obviously doesn't have the fear gene," said Nancy Quick, one of Bobblitt's physical therapists. "He works hard and has done everything we've asked him to do.
"He lives alone, is very independent and had learned to do just about everything a fully functional person can do. He didn't have to do this. I think that says something about him as a person."
After years spent learning to live and thrive in a wheelchair, Bobblitt has a new set of goals.
"I don't really focus on walking because you don't want to get your hopes up," he said. "But just being able to stand up out of the chair and transfer to the bed or get something off the counter makes me wonder what else might be possible down the road."