When Kent Stephenson arrived at the hospital after a serious motorcycle accident, his doctors assessed his injury and told him straight, “You’re paralyzed from the waist down, you’ll never feel anything there, and you’ll never regain any mobility or function. You’ll live from a wheelchair for the rest of your life.”
Kent had shattered an entire vertebra, and there was no way to repair it.
“How I took that…From that point on, my life was starting to end versus continuing to be an adventure,” Kent said. “That’s how I felt.”
But Kent’s despair quickly fed a new motivation to overcome his injury and live his best life possible.
“Soon enough, the first thing I did was start looking at centers that offered rehab and locomotor training.” Kent said.
Kent found what he was looking for: a team of doctors conducting revolutionary experimental therapy for people with spinal cord injuries.
Thanks to that therapy, Kent has stood independently, walked, and even danced at his own wedding.
“Before, it was just understood that I would never take a step again,” said Kent. “But that was wrong.”
Kent’s fascination with motorsport began at a young age.
“Growing up, we started out with go karts, then we got into bicycles and everything else,” Kent said. “My grandpa took me to my first supercross race as a kid. Seeing it instilled me with this want. That’s what I wanted to do.”
Kent began training, and was working to qualify for professional-level competitions.
“There was a couple of races left and then I would have my pro points, where then I could race the stuff you see on TV,” said Kent.
But, unfortunately, as he was preparing for those last few races, Kent’s progress ground to a halt.
“I was testing a motorcycle I had just got,” Kent said. “I was doing a 100-foot jump. And right off the face of that jump, my main motor just locked up. It had me pinned, and then it just tumbled, tumbled, tumbled.”
Kent knew immediately his injury was serious.
“People came over and asked, ‘Are you OK?’ and I said, ‘No,’” Kent said. “People asked if I could get up, and I said no.”
Kent was rushed to the hospital, and doctors delivered the grim prognosis.
“I was supposed to be an individual who would live and die from this [wheel]chair,” Kent said. “That’s what they told me.”
Kent’s doctors explained that medical theory has always suggested that the brain controls all movement. During a spinal cord injury, the brain loses its connection to the spinal cord, and so the brain cannot make the spinal cord create movement.
Yet, just down the road, a group of doctors was challenging that theory and rethinking the entire human motor system. And they were accepting patients like Kent to test their new understanding.
AN EXPERIMENT WITH EPIDURAL STIMULATION
As Kent conducted research into the best rehabilitation programs for people with spinal cord injuries, he came across a video. A man who had sustained a spinal cord injury and was paralyzed from the waist down was wiggling his toes. Kent’s interest was piqued.
“I saw the video and it was like: This dude’s got a switch and it makes him normal,” said Kent. “I found out through the grapevine that they had a guy in Louisville who was putting in epidural stimulators for these people, people like me, and they were seeing some very interesting things happen.”
These doctors had discovered that although the brain is the primary controller of movement and function, the spinal cord circuitry is just as smart and adaptable as the brain.
As one doctor puts it: “The spinal cord itself can learn, remember, and make decisions just like the brain. The spinal cord can stimulate the patterns of movement on its own.”
But for spinal cord injury patients, the spinal cord has lost its state of excitability. That’s where the epidural stimulator comes in.
The epidural stimulator’s lead is placed in the lower spinal cord, where it generates an electric field. That electric field helps nearby viable neurons function like they did before injury. In many people, over time, that translates into independent movement.
Kent wanted to be one of those success stories. So, he had an epidural stimulator implanted, and began rehabilitation therapy.
“It’s five days a week, two sessions a day,” said Kent. “It started with moving a toe, then it started with an ankle, then it started with a leg. 12 sessions in, I got my first volt of independence in standing.”
Kent’s improvement continued to amaze him and his health care team.
“It got to the point where it just happens naturally,” said Kent. “I just lean forward on my walker, and I think I want to stand, and I stand. And my legs, they hold me.”
As exciting as it is to see his legs move and hold his weight, it’s even more exciting for Kent to feel the sensation.
“The biggest thing for me is feeling it, because after that injury you feel nothing,” said Kent. “Now, when you execute these movements, you actually feel them.”
Kent harnessed that excitement into progress as he kept his eye on one singular goal: to stand at the end of the aisle on his wedding day.
“One of the first things that hits you when you’re in the hospital is: Am I ever going to get married and am I ever going to have kids?” said Kent.
Thanks to Kent’s work with the epidural stimulator, both of those dreams seem well within reach.
“I’m married now, and the epidural stimulator gave me the ability to stand at my wedding,” Kent said. “As soon as she started walking down the aisle that emotion just hit me. I don’t really cry but I was bawling.”
And after the ceremony concluded, Kent was able to dance.
“I got to dance with my mom, and that was so awesome.”
Now, Kent is excited about starting a family.
“I feel so close to the kids thing,” said Kent. “I know it’s coming.”
Kent continues to gain strength and function with each rehabilitation therapy appointment. He’s confident that eventually, he’ll be out of his wheelchair for good.
“It’s been an amazing journey. I can work out now and go hunting fishing, and trailing. I feel really good,” Kent said. “I really think it’s going to give me the ability to get out of this chair.”
This story was adapted from a video originally published by Bloomberg.