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Liberation From a Wheelchair : New Brace Helps the Determined Get Back on Their Feet

The Reciprocating Gait Orthosis, or RGO, will be on display at this weekend’s Abilities Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center, along with other products and services for the disabled.

The device was invented by Roy Douglas, an assistant professor of orthopedics at Louisiana State University medical school and an orthotist, a maker of orthopedic braces.

Building on the work of other researchers, Douglas designed the device for children with spina bifida, a congenital defect, but found it could also work in cases of spinal cord injury. It is lighter than earlier braces, supports the body higher and has a dual-cable (rather than single-cable) design, allowing easier operation, more stability and a more natural gait.

First of Its Kind

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But in its capacity to make walking an option for paralyzed people, it has “no predecessors,” according to T. Walley Williams, project director for prosthetics and rehabilitation aids for Liberty Mutual Insurance Co.'s research center in Hopkinton, Mass.

Earlier devices, he said, have made it possible to stand but not to ambulate. With the RGO, he explained, one foot is securely on the ground; the wearer shifts weight using the upper body, and the brace moves one leg, then, through a cable linkage, moves the other leg.

Dr. Paul A. Berns, with Douglas’ help, brought the RGO to the Beverly Hills clinic of Los Angeles Doctors Medical Group. After Berns signed up potential patients at last year’s Abilities Expo, a medical team screened applicants, looking for good physical health and fitness, a strong desire to live independently and an attitude that would spell success.

Kathy Paisley, 20, is exactly the kind of person they sought.

“I don’t think of myself in a wheelchair,” Paisley said recently. “Every time I pass a mirror . . . I’m surprised all over again.” Paisley has been in a wheelchair since 1983. Doctors told her then that she would get as much function back in the next 18 months as she would ever get back. She didn’t buy it.

Her long legs would no longer carry her, but that didn’t keep her from skiing on intermediate slopes--sitting down. And when her best friend got married in March, Paisley was able to walk down the aisle, with brace and walker, and stand up as the woman’s maid of honor.

Said Paisley: “I always thought I would walk again.”

Not that it has been easy. But ambulating can improve cardiovascular fitness and general health. And, as Williams pointed out, a patient can “get up where everybody else is. Who the hell wants to sit down when everyone else is standing up?”

Susan Tartakoff, 39, another patient at the clinic, has been in a wheelchair for three years, since a drugged driver ran a red light and broadsided the car she was driving. Muscle spasms make walking with the brace particularly difficult for her, and she admits she occasionally wilts with despair. But she finds the alternative--remaining placidly in her wheelchair--worse.

“Sometimes I just want to pack it in,” she said. “I can’t live in a wheelchair. If I can’t walk like this, I don’t want to be around.”

Group’s Success

Eight patients, including Paisley and Tartakoff, started physical therapy together in September. In December, the six who remained got out of their wheelchairs and walked together.

And with this first group’s success, Berns sees a future for the Los Angeles program. Along with Douglas and others involved with development of the RGO, he will be promoting the program anew at the Abilities Expo. (The Expo will be open today and Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; admission is $3 for adults and $2 for seniors.)


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