MINNEAPOLIS — More than 300,000 Americans live with spinal cord injuries, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, and many dream of walking again.
Crystal LaBo is one of them.
“I’ve always had the mindset that I would walk again someday,” LaBo said.
LaBo has paraplegia and has been in a wheelchair for 23 years.
She was involved in a car accident on Oct. 8, 1999 and hasn’t been able to walk since.
“When I was at the scene of the car accident we knew. I couldn’t feel anything from my chest down,” LaBo said.
Since her accident, LaBo has applied for nearly a dozen medical studies to see if she could get back some of the mobility in her legs.
“I was always turned down,” LaBo explains.
“The problem with mine is that my date for my injury is out so far. Most studies don’t include people that have the injury date out so far.”
In 2021 LaBo applied for a study at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis.
However, this time, doctors accepted her application.
“She is really our furthest out from injury,” Dr. David Darrow says.
Dr. Darrow is the principal investigator for Hennepin Healthcare Research Institute’s E-STAND clinical trial.
The trial has included 20 patients like LaBo who suffer from paralysis and are willing to have an epidural spinal cord stimulation implant surgically implanted near their spine.
For nearly 50 years, spinal cord stimulation has been used to help patients with chronic pain.
Dr. Darrow said doctors recently discovered that the technology could also be used to help paraplegic patients recover some movement.
“Over time what we have found is sure enough in 20 out of 20 patients we see significant effects across the board,” Dr. Darrow explains.
Doctors say patients have seen improvements in movement and mobility in their legs, improved blood circulation, and increased control over their bowels and bladders.
LaBo says she is experiencing improvements in all of those areas, and she is also experiencing an improvement in her body’s ability to regulate temperature.
“I used to be cold all the time and now I’m not. I’m much more comfortable now,” LaBo says.
LaBo and her husband Dustin live in Bryan, Ohio.
Together they have four kids, and they own a restaurant that specializes in grilled cheese.
“We have 16 to 18 different kinds of grilled cheese available,” Dustin LaBo said.
Crystal works nearly every job at the restaurant, including waiting tables, which has become a bit of a challenge since her legs started moving again
“So, I have a tray on my lap with food and drinks and my legs will kick up. The other day the tray kicked up and hit me in the face,” LaBo laughs.
A small price to pay for everything she has gained these past two months.
“Every day I see a little more movement, a little more control. The first time she did it, I’ll never forget that look on her face. She was just like, it was the greatest day of her life, and she was like, ‘I did it. I did it,”’ Dustin LaBo said.
Dr. Darrow and his team are now building a case to get FDA approval.
They want to enroll at least 20 more patients to show how well their procedure works.
"Then my job is convincing insurance companies to pay for it, which is a big job, but we think results are robust enough and the cost is reasonable,” Dr. Darrow said.
Over time Dr. Darrow is hoping to bring this procedure to more patients like Crystal, who dreams of taking her first step in 23 years, and maybe even walking again.
"I'll get there one day. It might take a while, but I’ll get there.”
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