By Jamie Zimmerman
Dustin Shillcox was told he could never move or walk again. With the flick of a switch, that all changed.
"It was so incredibly amazing for me," said Shillcox. "[My family] cried as well… they were very excited and happy."
The switch turned an electric stimulator, which had been implanted into his spine. And even after two years of being paralyzed from the chest down, he noticed almost immediately that he could voluntarily move his right leg, toes and ankle.
The injury that had led to Shillcox's paralysis was brutal for him to recall. A tire blew in the van he was driving, and was thrown from the vehicle at high speed. The accident broke his back and injured his spinal cord, causing complete paralysis and sensory loss below his injury.
Shillcox spent 16 days in intensive care, followed by nearly 5 months in the hospital. But none of the care he received would promise to help him move his legs again, until he saw an advertisement for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation seeking participants for a clinical trial. The ad featured another young man with a similarly serious injury, who had regained the ability to move his legs after having an electrode stimulator implanted along his spinal cord. He was the first patient with complete motor paralysis to recover voluntary movement of paralyzed muscles.
"I knew I wanted to do anything possible to regain mobility back," Shillcox said. He applied for the clinical trial and was accepted.
After surgery and hundreds of rehabilitation sessions, Shillcox has since learned to bear weight on his legs and take some steps with support. Perhaps even more importantly, he has regained control over many of his bodily functions. And he can have sex again.
"It changed my quality of life, my self-confidence," Shillcox said. "When I go out in public… to be able to use the restroom and be able to do that yourself improved my quality of life 100 percent."
In addition to Shillcox and the case that inspired him, two other young men with complete paralysis have undergone the same procedure. All have gained voluntary movement in their legs, according to a new study published in the journal Brain Tuesday.
Previously, scientists believed such recovery to be impossible. Dr. Claudia Angeli, one of the authors on the Brain study and Assistant Professor and University of Louisville's Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, said that the discovery that this device, already being studied in a paralysis patient for other reasons, could restore leg function was largely a surprise.
"[One day], he was kind of bored during testing and decided to start trying to move and noticed he could move his toes," Angeli said. "That was a big 'wow' moment for us.
"This makes me get up and go to work every day because I know it's going to make a difference in someone else's life."
Neurological experts not involved with the research were similarly impressed.
"In the past, there was a prevailing idea that if you had motor-sensory complete spinal cord injury, you didn't have any circuits that are left," said Dr. James Guest, associate professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of Miami Medical School. "This research shows there are some circuits left … that can be modulated by conscious choice."
Dr. Hazem Eltahawy, assistant professor of neurosurgery at Wayne State University, said the finding "invites optimism that this is not a complete injury that has no prognosis for recovery."
"If this is true and reproducible, I think that would be the first time to demonstrate you can achieve some voluntary control across an injured spinal cord," he said.
The scientists cautioned, however, that the research is still in early stages. Moreover, the four young men in the study engaged in literally hundreds of rehab sessions - something that may not be possible for all patients.
However, they are hopeful that these techniques can be applied sooner after recovery, and perhaps in combination with other technologies, or earlier in the recovery process, to see even greater results.
As for Shillcox, he's now moved back home. And while he can't walk yet, his strengthened core muscles already allow him to go jet-skiing.
"Definitely walking is a goal in my eyes, and I am going to continue doing everything I can to make that happen," he said.
"It's exciting to me to know if this is happening for me, and it's exciting for other people out there with spinal cord injuries."