Former Medford resident Scott Taylor, who now lives in Salem, wears an electronic muscle stimulator on his leg to help him walk. Complications from surgery for a brain tumor caused Taylor to lose function on his right side. - Jim Craven

Device helps paralyzed man walk

Scott Taylor is teaching himself to walk with the same energy he once gave to long-distance running.

Twenty years ago Taylor could run a marathon. That phase of his life ended abruptly when physicians discovered a tumor in his brain. Complications from surgery for the tumor left him paralyzed from the neck down, and he spent months in a hospital regaining some use of his arms and legs.

His right side never fully recovered, and his foot would no longer perform the complex motions the rest of us take for granted with every step we make. Taylor had to lift his whole leg at the hip and swing it out and forward to take a step. The condition that physicians call "foot drop" made walking more arduous than running had ever been.

"I had to completely learn how to walk again," he said.

Taylor, who had worked in real estate for years, moved on with life and took a job in Salem as Oregon's real estate commissioner. His unnatural walking motion eventually caused pain in his hip and leg. He kept himself healthy, hoping that someday a new invention would help him walk more like he used to, and he continued to visit Medford for treatments with Dr. Cornelia Byers, medical director for Providence Regional Rehabilitation Services.

Last summer he finally saw what he'd been waiting for — an electronic muscle stimulator that mimics a natural walking motion by automatically lifting the toes as the leg swings forward with each stride. Not much bigger than a sandwich, the device straps to the leg just below the knee.

A sensor placed in the heel of a shoe times each electric impulse to match the wearer's gait, and a transmitter that attaches to the shoe sends the signal to the stimulator, contracting the muscles at the moment when the foot should lift.

Taylor's wife, Lynne, still remembers her husband's excitement when he saw a demonstration of the leg stimulator manufactured by California-based Bioness.

"He said, 'My God, I want one of those,'" she recalled last week while her husband was in Medford to see Byers.

Taylor said the stimulator allows him to focus on improving other aspects of his walking motion that deteriorated while he compensated for his foot drop.

"I'm getting my body position back," he said. "I can concentrate on other parts of my gait, like where my hips are, and when I swing my right leg forward — things that I couldn't think about before."

Byers said the stimulator can be used to help a wide range of patients who have difficulty walking as a result of a stroke or spinal injury. For some patients, it can be used as a training device to relearn how to lift the toes while walking. For others who have nerve damage, it serves as a kind of dynamic brace, replacing rigid mechanical supports.

"The muscle works when it's supposed to in the normal walking cycle," Byers explained.

The technology is called functional electronic stimulation. Bioness also produces devices that use the same principle to restore hand function.

The leg stimulator costs about $5,900. Because it's still new technology, insurance coverage varies. Byers said some insurers cover it as a brace, but traditional leg braces cost far less, so the insurance benefit may not cover the full cost.

Byers said Taylor's persistence convinced Bioness to make the device available in Southern Oregon. Right now, Providence Medford is the only hospital between Portland and Southern California that has the brace.

"As soon as he put it on he felt the difference," Byers said.

Taylor said the stimulator has made a huge difference in his mobility. "It doesn't mean I'm not disabled," he said, "but I can at least function."

He said he plans to use the stimulator "until they come up with something better."

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail

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