Clinic partnership aimed at improving health of people with spinal cord injuries

Corbett Hall Student Physical Therapy Clinic now features specialized exercise equipment thanks to partnership with Spinal Cord Injury Treatment Centre (Northern Alberta) Society.

Bryan Alary - 01 September 2015

The Corbett Hall Student Physical Therapy Clinic now features a specialized exercise bike for people with spinal cord injuries.

(Edmonton) It's been three years since Craig Scott's harrowing motorcycle crash in rural Utah that nearly took his life and stole all function in his legs.

At the end of a week-long motorcycle trip, the Edmonton-based realtor found himself face down in the ditch of a remote highway, hidden from view, barely able to breathe and reeling from intense pain-the result of a missed corner he later learned is notoriously dangerous.

"I felt my hip and there was nothing there. Instantly I knew that I was paralyzed, to some degree," remembers Scott.

After two hours in the intense 32 C heat, a passing motorcyclist stopped in the area, by chance, for a cigarette break when he saw a few small pieces of broken plastic on the road. After not finding anything, the motorcyclist was about to leave when he decided to take one more look around. That's when he saw Scott weakly waving a fistful of long blades of grass. Salvation.

In the years since that dramatic rescue, Scott has navigated a long and difficult road to recovery, working toward his dream of one day walking again. He receives treatment two to three times a week at the Corbett Hall Student Physical Therapy Clinic in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Alberta, working to build strength in his legs.

Thanks to a new functional electrical stimulation (FES) rehabilitation bicycle leased to the clinic, Scott can now work out on his own. FES involves sending electrical currents to paralyzed or weakened muscles so they contract to restore some degree of functional movement in users with spinal cord injuries, stroke and other neuromuscular disorders.

"The key for me is to keep my legs as strong as possible," says Scott, who in addition to strength is trying to improve his bone density enough to qualify as a participant for the ReWalk pilot study, also at the U of A, which would see him walk again with the aid of a robotic exoskeleton.

"When the clinic received that FES machine, that was just the cherry on top of the cake. It's a real godsend." - Craig Scott, clinic patient

"For people with complete injuries [total loss of function in his legs] like me, it's a lot harder to keep up that strength, so when the clinic received that FES machine, that was just the cherry on top of the cake. It's a real godsend."

The RT 300 FES bike was purchased by the Spinal Cord Injury Treatment Centre (Northern Alberta) Society, or SCITCS, and leased to the clinic for three years. This is the fourth FES machine that SCITCS has secured for the U of A (the others are located at the Saville Community Sports Centre and the Steadward Centre for Personal & Physical Achievement), in addition to the SCITCS FES Research Laboratory in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. SCITCS also recently leased the ReWalk exoskeleton for the U of A pilot study.

SCITCS president Louise Miller says having access to FES equipment in a student clinic gives people with spinal cord injuries an important tool to improving their physical activity and overall health.

"We get so much information coming at us about what happens to people who sit all day and all the negative health implications you will experience from sitting, but guess what? People with spinal cord injury are sitting 24-7," says Miller, who co-founded SCITCS with husband John in 1987. "You have to move in order to stay healthy."

With a growing number of FES machines in Alberta, it's also important to expose students to such technology as early as possible, Miller adds.

"This is the next generation of physical therapists who one day will be practising in the community, where FES equipment already exists, and they need to have the training and knowledge needed to meet the needs of their patients."

Bob Haennel, interim dean of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, praised the "tireless" efforts of SCITCS-and the Millers in particular-for their dedication to ensuring students, faculty and the clinic's patients have access to some of the world's best rehabilitation technology.

"People with spinal cord injury are sitting 24-7. You have to move in order to stay healthy." - Louise Miller, SCITCS president

Louise and Craig

SCITCS president Louise Miller with clinic patient Craig Scott.

"The Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine is extremely fortunate to have a partner with as much passion, commitment and vision as Louise and John Miller and the entire SCITCS family," Haennel said. "We could not do what we do as a faculty without organizations like SCITCS or caring individuals like the Millers."

Clinic co-ordinator Kim Dao, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Physical Therapy, agreed the RT 300 is a valuable teaching tool and is exploring ways of integrating its use into existing curriculum. In the meantime, she hopes more patients like Scott will benefit from the technology at the not-for-profit clinic.

"We are a teaching clinic that offers full range of services for our patients, including those with unique rehabilitation needs-everything from stroke to chronic pain to spinal cord injury. Having the FES bicycle gives us one more tool to ensure our patients receive the best care possible and that our students are at the forefront of the profession."

After changing his diet and workout regimen to improve his health and bone density, Scott says he's made a goal of ramping up his FES workouts this fall.

"I think more people should take advantage of FES, even if they're not trying to walk again," he says. "Just the exercise alone is worth it and can make a huge, huge difference."