MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – An estimated 1.2 million Americans have suffered a spinal cord injury resulting in paralysis, according to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. Beyond the statistics, however, the foundation is trying to get some of those people walking again, and a Minnesota teenager is determined to become one of them.
As one watches Chris Dynan being buckled into a full-torso harness, it’s easy to think he may be preparing for a bungee jump or skydive. After all, the 15-year-old from Elk River, Minn., is known for being a bit of a dare devil. And, strapped into this harness, he is soaring to even higher heights – life-changing heights.
“He’s an amazing kid,” said his mother Karie Dynan. “He has the best attitude. He’s highly motivated. He’s my hero.”
Last August, Chris broke his neck in two places after he flipped his ATV in a ditch.
“I remember the whole thing,” Chris said. “I remember lying on the ground, trying to get back up and my friend standing there and telling me to stay down and wait.”
It was smart advice, although, at the time, Chris’ prognosis looked bleak.
“When we were in the emergency room the nurse said, ‘we’re just preserving what he has now,’” his mother said. “He had no movement or feeling in his legs.”
Therapist Rachel Kath Dvorak said in the past it was thought that there was little chance for healing or recovery from such an injury. Today, she said, there is hope in a concept called neuroplasticity.
“With the newer research they’re finding that there’s actually the ability for the brain and the spinal cord to reorganize and relearn new activities,” Kath Dvorak said. “And actually re-grow new connections and new [nerve] sprouts.”
Four days a week, Chris’ parents bring him to Courage Center in Golden Valley for several hours of focused therapy. He is enrolled in an intensive program called A.B.L.E., which stands for Activity Based Locomotor Exercise. The A.B.L.E. Program is supported by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. As the Courage Center collects data, what they learn could help others like Chris.
A key component in the program is a computer-linked treadmill system. It controls how much weight Chris is physically supporting through his feet and the speed of the treadmill. Chris’ legs are taken through the motions of walking by four therapists moving in precise patterns.
“And the reason we have a person at each leg is so they can provide very specific cues to the muscles,” a therapist explained. “The quadriceps, hamstrings and then calf muscles to simulate the way the muscles [and nerves] fire in normal walking.”
“I’m trying to engage the muscles,” Chris said. “But I can’t really feel them get tight yet.”
Gradually, Chris’ legs have been waking up. Sensations of hot and cold and pressure are returning. Chris sincerely believes he will walk unassisted again.