In November 2004, Sunshine King was involved in a domestic dispute. Fortunately, her life was saved but as a result of this event, her legs were paralyzed due to a spinal cord injury. Sunshine has not been able to walk since.
Today, the availability of new, state-of-the-art rehabilitation technology is renewing Sunshine’s hope. She is actively participating in a research project, funded by the Department of Defense, involving the ReWalk Exoskeletal System. This motorized device helps patients with spinal cord injuries regain technology-assisted use of their lower extremities. Through a gradual approach, the ReWalk physically moves patient’s legs for them, giving them the ability to stand, bear weight and pick up their feet, one miraculous step at a time, while in the device.
As a participant in the ReWalk research study, Sunshine committed to visiting UM Rehab three times per week for three months to use the device with oversight and hands-on help from our rehabilitation team. Her participation in the study began following three months of ongoing monitoring and evaluation of her functionality at home, without access to the device. UM Rehab researchers are tracking and documenting the physical progress Sunshine makes in using the ReWalk device, as well as the impact of her activity on her strength, overall mobility, body composition, bowel function and glucose and lipid levels.
“The idea is that when patients are able to actually get up out of their wheelchairs and start moving again using the ReWalk, there is potential for positive impact on other areas of the body as well,” said William Scott, Lead Clinical Research Specialist at UM Rehab. “From a research standpoint, we are interested in evaluating how quickly a patient can learn to use this technology to actually begin standing and walking, slowly initially and then at a quicker pace over time. Of equal interest is how his or her overall body composition changes, as activity occurs and increases.”
UM Rehab is one of three medical centers across the U.S. participating in this collaborative research effort, which was initially protocoled and introduced by the James J. Peters VA Medical Center in the Bronx, NY. Also participating in this effort is the Kessler Foundation Research Center / Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, located in West Orange, NJ. Each institution independently recruits participants and then documents and reports data for collective analysis. Peter Gorman, MD, Associate Professor of Neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is the principal investigator leading this research project at UM Rehab.
“When we have the opportunity to partner with other leading medical institutions to conduct this type of research, we learn so much from this collaboration and we apply that new knowledge in a way that continually improves the patient care process and most importantly, patient results and outcomes,” said Dr. Gorman. “Our patients are enthusiastic when they have the chance to take part in our research initiatives. A lot of times, it gives them the opportunity to do some of the things they once thought would never again be possible. At the same time, we as researchers have the opportunity to contribute to and evolve the science of rehabilitation medicine.”
Long-term, UM Rehab’s goal is to recruit at least 20 patients to participate in the ReWalk research project over a four-year period. Sunshine is proud to be among the first to participate in the study, and that pride grew tremendously on the day she ultimately took her first step, using the ReWalk device.
“I originally learned about the ReWalk when I saw a story about it on the news, and immediately thought to myself ‘I have to get into that machine!’ I was nervous to take that first step but my team here at UM Rehab reminded me they were here to support me, and would not let me fall,” said Sunshine, who also serves as an adapted dance instructor and today, is committed to helping others with disabilities pursue active, healthy lifestyles. “Most days, I take about four or five steps, which feels amazing. One time I managed to take 13 steps, and I got emotional. I am determined to keep increasing the number of steps I can take, as well as my speed and balance.”
Sunshine’s determination is providing a “ray of hope” (pun intended) to many, and the team at UM Rehab is privileged to be part of her recovery process.