Device helps Nebraska teen stride toward goals

FREMONT, Neb. (AP) — At 16, Wyatt Spalding has clear goals and ambitions.

He wants to go to college and become a basketball coach. He wants to qualify in tennis for the Special Olympics World Games and in basketball for the national games.

Now with the help of a small device called a WalkAide, the Fremont teen is making more strides toward achieving his goals.

Wyatt and his twin brother, Weston, were born two months premature. Wyatt's trachea and esophagus were connected and trauma from his medical condition led to cerebral palsy. Wyatt spent the first seven months of his life in hospitals and had more than 13 operations.

With the cerebral palsy, Wyatt's right arm and hand don't work well and he has a form of lower leg paralysis known as "foot drop." He was outfitted with a type of brace, called an ankle foot orthosis that allowed for limited motion. The brace could keep Wyatt's foot from dropping when he walked, but provided more stability than he actually needed and was restricting.

For years, Wyatt went to Jim Hastings at Hangar Prosthetics and Orthotics in Omaha. Hastings, an orthotist, would fit Wyatt for his brace. Then last year, Hastings told Wyatt and his parents, Rick and Mary Jo, about the WalkAide and Aaron Jacobsen, a certified prosthetist orthotist who would be coming from Houston to join the Omaha practice.

The WalkAide, which came out in 2005, is a small unit about the size of an old-school iPod, Jacobsen said. Worn around the calf, just below the knee, the WalkAide sends a gentle electrical impulse that activates the muscle to raise the foot at the right time during the step cycle.

"When he heard this was available, Wyatt wanted to try it," Rick Spalding said. "We took him to see if he would be a good candidate. They did a bunch of tests."

Wyatt was loaned a WalkAide for a trial period that lasted about six weeks. Two weeks after Wyatt got the device, family members were amazed by how much better he moved while playing in a Special Olympics tennis tournament.

The device helped when Wyatt played football, too.

"I could run a lot better and throw a lot better," said Wyatt, who played quarterback for the Special Olympics team.

Rick said the WalkAide gave Wyatt more flexibility.

There was an adjustment period.

At first, he wore the device for two hours, then four hours at a time, and then all day to school. When he came home after school, Wyatt noticed that his foot was sore at first.

"I wasn't used to it," he said. "After a day or two, it didn't really bother me."

With insurance approval, Wyatt was able to get his own device.

"He's been using it like crazy ever since," Jacobsen said.

Research involving functional electrical stimulation began in the 1960s. Last summer, the National Institutes of Health conducted a study with kids with cerebral palsy and WalkAides and braces.

All the kids chose to keep the WalkAides, Jacobsen said.

What's more, patients are finding that they can wear the device for a period of time and then have more control of their own limb after taking it off.

"The signal goes to the muscle and up to the brain and so there's some sort of rewiring that's going on," Jacobsen said.

Rick said Wyatt doesn't have to wear the device all the time and can pick up his foot now - whereas before, he couldn't.

"It's a lot easier to walk," Wyatt said.

"He's gained more independence," Mary Jo added.

Wyatt won't be able to get rid of the device, Jacobsen said. But over time, he could wear it a certain number of hours per day — like a dosage of medicine — to get the desired effect.

Jacobsen hopes that with more studies, specialists will find how much time each patient needs to wear the device. Not every patient will have those lasting effects, but Jacobsen believes that many people will gain at least some.

Now, the Spaldings want to spread the word about the WalkAide.

"This is something that can really help other people," Rick said. "It's not perfect for everybody, but it works for qualified candidates. It's been great for Wyatt."

Wyatt, who plays intramural and Special Olympics basketball, has found that the device has helped increase his speed on the court. He can get around the Fremont High School campus better. It has helped him in his role as manager of his school's junior varsity basketball team, varsity basketball team (which his brother is on), and the varsity football team. He looks forward to playing high school tennis with the device.

Jacobsen notes that not every patient is a good candidate for the device - for example, those people with Post-Polio Syndrome, Charcot-Marie-Tooth, a lower motor neuron disorder, or Spina Bifida.

But Jacobsen is pleased to see how the WalkAide has helped Wyatt.

"He's a great kid," Jacobsen said. "He's got a great attitude about everything. He takes advantage of every opportunity he has. He's taking every chance he can to improve every day. He's an inspiring kid. He works hard. It's cool."

Wyatt recently demonstrated his sense of humor, saying his favorite subjects in school are P.E. and lunch.

He is serious about his future, however. He tells how he and his brother might coach together some day. He'd like to coach college basketball. His brother probably would be the head coach and he would be an assistant, but Wyatt doesn't care just as long as he gets to be a coach.

Rick smiled as he heard this and noted, "They make a pretty good team."


Information from: Fremont Tribune, http://fremonttribune.com

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