Many who know hometown baseball star Rob Summers call him Superman. Since age six, Summers, now 25, was a champion pitcher in his hometown of Portland, Ore. In 2006, after his team at Oregon State University won the College World Series, Rob dreamed of going into the major league.
But he never knew that his nickname would ring true until July 2006, when he was struck in a hit-and-run accident and became paralyzed below the neck.
"I was told I would never stand, never take a step again," said Summers. "And I said, 'Obviously you don't know me. I'm going to walk again.'"
And nearly three years after his paralysis, through clinical research supported by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, Summers stood on his own and took his first step. Summers became the first paralysis patient to undergo a procedure that uses his own nerve impulses to help move parts of his body that he was told he would never use again.
In December 2009, doctors implanted an electric nerve stimulator in Summers' spine, below the area that was damaged. When the stimulator is turned on, a panel of 16 electrodes reactivates the nerves in Summers' spinal cord, helping him move his muscles on his own.
During a therapy session a few months after the procedure, Summers, surrounded by researchers and family, discovered he could voluntarily wiggle his toes.
"I turned and I go, 'hey look, my toes are moving.' Everyone's mouths hit the floor," said Summers. "It's incredible not only to see the doctors' work realized, but also to see my dreams come true."
Although robotic devices are increasingly used to help control movement, nerve stimulation manipulates a person's own impulses to move.
For decades, researchers have looked at stimulating nerves in the spinal cords of paralyzed mice.
"It's been very exciting to be able to show it happens to humans," said Dr. Susan Harkema, the lead researcher and a professor in the department of neurological surgery at the University of Louisville.
But his first step was no easy feat. Doctors gradually had to increase the length of time Summers spends with his stimulator turned on. Now, they only turn his stimulator on for two hours during his therapy sessions. Summers also committed to six hours of intense training and worked with 4 to 8 trainers every day.
"It's overwhelming, but we're all working towards the same goal," said Summers, who is now learning to regain muscle control. "My goal is to continue working every day. In my mind there's no end."
Many people paralyzed by spinal cord injuries endure complications beyond the initial injury. Paralyzed patients have a higher likelihood of developing heart disease and diabetes, mostly because paralysis leaves them sedentary.
But standing has helped improve Summers' circulation, regain his muscle strength, and helped boost his confidence.
"It's been a long journey. Physically and emotionally draining," he said. "Being able to stand has given me hope again."
The procedure is still in early phases of human research and has not been FDA approved. Harkema says further trials will be able to tell better what types of patients would benefit from this procedure.
"I've worked with spinal cord injuries for 15 years, anything that can reduce that suffering is fantastic," said Harkema. "This approach has the potential to take people past the limits of a wheelchair."
And, according to Peter Wilderotter, CEO of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, Summers has achieved one of the goals of the foundation that the Reeves created.
"They would have seen Rob as their personal superman. It gives incredible hope," said Wilderotter.