Technology Helping Paralyzed Patients Take Steps into Tomorrow

3/23/2016 12:00:00 AM
By: Joanna Weakley, MSPT

To most, Ashley Barnes is known as a charismatic community advocate and devoted mother. As her physical therapist, I know Ashley as a fighter. For the past two years, the 36-year-old Tyler, Texas, resident has been paralyzed from the waist down.

Since she came into my care at Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation, Ashley has been motivated by a desire for independence — she wants to do things for herself and for her 9-year-old son on her own. Such determination powers her daily life as a mom, family member, friend and mentor for others with spinal cord injuries.

The Dallas Morning News recently shared Ashley’s inspiring story about the progress she’s made throughout rehabilitation. Her determination to walk again is an inspiration to those of us who have been by her side through the rehab process.

Helping Others Adjust to the New Normal

Shortly after I met Ashley, she began volunteering with the Neuro Assistance Foundation, where she helps provide medical equipment and adaptive recreational gear for others. Ashley also dedicates her time as a peer mentor with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation and as a board member with the Baylor Support Challenge Inspire group.

What these patients are going through can be seemingly dark times. Having the support of someone who understands their circumstances can make things less daunting.

I’ve never met a patient so passionate about helping others with similar challenges — whether that’s guiding them through initial rehab or helping them adjust to life afterward. What these patients are going through can be seemingly dark times. Having the support of someone who understands their circumstances can make things less daunting.

As a health care provider, it’s a privilege to work with patients such as Ashley who have sustained traumatic injury or illness that completely changed their lives. It’s heartening to see how they not only work through their own personal recoveries, but how they support others so devotedly along the journey. They compliment and encourage each other during therapy and form long-term bonds.

Pushing the Bounds with Competitive Encouragement

Ashley is a shining example of this dedication and spirit. As soon as she began training with a robotic exoskeleton, she recommended it to other patients. As they tried it, we saw a community of encouragement and camaraderie — and a little healthy competition — develop.

One day during Ashley’s training, we needed her to move more than a foot to the right, so I asked her to hop. She looked perplexed until I told her that another patient had done it that morning. She gave me a look of determination and hopped right over!

These are the daily events that make my job rewarding. Small achievements build independence and help patients work toward their goals, and the bonds they form between one another enrich their recovery environment.

Giving Patients More Options with Robotic Exoskeletons

It’s an exciting time to be a physical therapist. Thanks to physicians, therapists and rehabilitation engineers, the introduction of robotic exoskeletons has given new options to patients who have had limited chances to walk again. Few words can express how I feel to be involved in that journey.

Most patients who try a robotic exoskeleton have an initial goal of standing and taking steps. But as more people use the technology, the benefits have expanded: We’ve seen reports of reduced neuropathic pain, improved gastrointestinal issues and a better quality of life.

For many of my patients, just the ability to look someone in the eye while speaking or to give their family member a standing hug is priceless. These daily achievements of patients like Ashley make my job rewarding. We work. We laugh. We cry. We struggle. We thrive — all so we can take new steps into tomorrow.

AUTHORED BY
Joanna Weakley, MSPT
Joanna is a physical therapist formerly on the medical staff at Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation. Joanna has extensive knowledge in the functional recovery of SCI and wheelchair positioning. She has expertise in the treatment of patients who have suffered from cerebrovascular accidents, brain aneurysms, brain tumors and progressive neurological diseases.