One of the many things we will never again take for granted is walking. I just returned from doing a few errands (I almost wrote "running" errands.) I walked a bit over a mile and it took a bit over one exhausting hour to do it. The street crossing is especially tricky but I'm learning which pedestrian signals give me enough time and which don't. (I find myself apologizing under my breath to the waiting drivers, "I'm sorry but I only have one speed–– it's called 'IN-YOUR-WAY.'")
What exactly is the problem, you may be wondering. In a word, it's weakness. The nerves which tell the muscles in my lower legs and feet what to do are sending through very weak signals. The result is extreme weakness in my calves and ankles. Also, it feels as if the balls of my feet don't exist. You can try this out yourself. Stand up and shift all your weight to your heels. Now, try to balance. Now walk. Now take a shower, get dressed, make breakfast, feed the cats, go shopping, practice your pole vaulting... you get the idea.
Still, for all this difficulty it's great to get out and about and I remain hopeful that the recovery will be relatively quick. (For the record... right now my pole vaulting skills suck.)
There's a sci-fi short story by William Gibson in which a young woman with a neurological disorder causing paralysis wears a computerized exoskeleton suit that simulates the action of her muscles. It, in effect, walks her around. Well... it's not quite cyberpunk and it ain't pretty but somebody has built one.
This thing can climb stairs and take you for long walks. It was dreamed up by a guy who was recovering from temporary parapelegia. He got better and decided to build it for all those who weren't going to get better. (theyshallwalk.org)
The great hope in recent years in the spinal cord injury community (yes, we have a community) has been the promise that stem cell research would lead to a treatment. Today researchers at Johns Hopkins reported one of the first big steps in this direction. Here's the AP story, but in a nutshell: using a complex treatment involving neurochemicals and stem cells, the researchers managed to regrow damaged motor neurons enabling partially paralysed rats to walk again. I'm pretty confident I'll never need this but what an amazing prospect for all the people out there who do! No word yet on the response from the partially paralysed rat community.