Paralyzed "Superman" Takes First Steps
Through an incredible scientific breakthrough and a lot of hard work, 25-year old Rob “Superman” Summers was able to take his first steps since being paralyzed in a devastating car accident.
Hit and Run Tragedy Left Summers Paralyzed
Summers, a hometown baseball start from Portland Oregon had his sights set on the big leagues back in 2006 after his team at Oregon State University won the College World Series. Referred to by his nickname of “Superman” most of his life, no one had any idea just how much of a real-life hero he would become.
In 2006 Summers was standing outside of his car when another car suddenly lost control and struck him before driving away. When he woke up he was paralyzed from the neck down.
"I was told I would never stand, never take a step again," Summers told ABC. "And I said, 'Obviously you don't know me. I'm going to walk again.'"
Three years later Summers joined Susana Harkema, PhD. Of the University of Louisville, Kentucky and her research team at the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center for a revolutionary clinical research trial. The study was ironically funded by the real Superman's legacy, the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.
Summers was the first of five patients to begin this clinical trial which began with an intensive 170 physical therapy sessions over the course of 26 months. Then in 2009 an electrical stimulator was surgically implanted directly on the dura of Summer's spinal cord. This stimulator device is already FDA approved for use in pain management but, for the purposes of this study, was modified for spinal cord treatment.
Summers Stands On Third Try
Once the electrical stimulator was implanted, Summers began spinal cord stimulation during therapy sessions lasting up to 4 hours. On just his third try, researchers were astounded that he was able to not only move, but stand up using only minimal support.
“When Rob regained voluntary control of his leg, I was afraid to believe it when I saw it," said Harkema's research partner Reggie Edgerton, Ph.D in a news conference. "What nobody has ever demonstrated is that epidural stimulation at modest levels enables an individual to have conscious control of body motion. Someone with paralysis for several years can now control his movement. This has never been done before."
Only 7 months later Summers was able to regain some his own control over his legs and feet by moving them on command during spinal stimulation sessions. He also has regained control over his bowls, bladder and sexual function – which were lost when he became paralyzed.
"Being able to move my ankles, my toes, my knees -- there are not enough words to describe how I felt after not having anything for four years," Summers said. "It was a dream and now it is a reality. I am going to work until I achieve all my goals. I have a long list: First to stand completely independently, then to take steps in a functional manner, and eventually to play baseball again."
The electrical stimulator device can only be left on for a couple of hours per day and it is a long ways off before Summers could have a device that would work around-the-clock. However, he continues to work towards rehabilitation through an intensive 6 hour program each day with a team of 4 to 8 trainers.
"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."