Dec. 8, 2006 — A 3-year-old paralyzed Kentucky boy learned to walk again after trying a therapy that was financed by the Christopher Reeve Foundation's Neuro-Recovery Network.
The image is forever ingrained in our memory: "Superman" actor Christopher Reeve, suspended over a treadmill. He was one of the first to try this radical new therapy known as locomotor training, developed by Dr. Susan Harkema, professor of neurosurgery at the Kentucky Spinal Injury Research Center.
"The spinal cord itself has a great capacity to learn, to remember, to forget and to make decisions," Harkema said. "And the spinal cord can do that even when it's disconnected from the brain."
The therapy reteaches the spinal cord how to control motor functions, like walking, through repetitive motion. After 15 years of experimentation, the therapy has now helped hundreds of spinal cord injury victims to be healthier and some to even walk.
That miracle is now giving hope to thousands more, including one young mother, Renee Ford, whose 2-year-old son, Chase, hit his head while jumping on a couch, injuring his spinal cord.
"He was pale white… He was shaking, crying uncontrollably. I couldn't even stop him," Ford said. "Chase hit his head so hard that it bruised the central spinal cord area. … He was actually paralyzed from the neck down."
The prognosis was a parent's worst nightmare.
"To hear that Chase did this much damage to his body, a little tiny body, and he's going to be in a wheelchair forever…" Ford said, crying.
A month after the accident, Harkema accepted Chase into the locomotor training.
"When I first saw him, he could not move his arms and legs at all," Harkema said.
The center had never had a patient so young, but Chase responded to the therapy.
"The first day we stepped him on the treadmill he came off and he was crying," Harkema said. "And his leg moved out and moved back in and that's when I knew that there was a lot of hope for him."
Just two weeks ago, after a year and a half of hard work, Chase walked on his own.
"My first thought was, he did it. He did it," Ford said. "If he can do it, a 3-year-old can do it. Anybody can do it."
Now, Chase has the promise of a normal life.
The first thing Chase wants to do when he can run on his own is play baseball.
Harkema was away at the time, but she still remembers what she felt when she heard the news that Chase was walking.
She said she felt "hope … and a little sadness that Chris and Dana [Reeve] weren't here to see it."
For Chase and others, spinal cord injuries are no longer a life sentence of paralysis, which is the Reeves' legacy.
"A little boy from Owensville, Ky., that no one has ever heard of received the cutting-edge therapy, and Dana and Christopher Reeve's vision lives on in Chase," Ford said.