Ever since fracturing his C-5 vertebra in a varsity game earlier this year, former Monroe High School ice hockey star Mikey Nichols is constantly altering his goals.
With each new milestone – whether it be the ability to raise his right hand or to more than quadruple the amount of time he can remain upright in a standing frame – Nichols still has his sights set on being able to walk again.
But since the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation contacted Nichols last week, asking him to help promote their fundraising campaign for The Big Idea, the 18-year-old’s goals have changed once more.
“Basically,” Nichols explained, “ever since I got hurt, it’s been my goal to walk again. I believe a more important goal, however, should be to help paralysis come to an end completely, so no other kid or anyone this happens to feels the way I do.”
The Big Idea, launched last week, is aimed at propelling the paralysis community into a new era of groundbreaking research in the area of epidural electrical stimulation, which has improved the quality of life for four men living with chronic motor complete spinal cord injuries.
All four men, each paralyzed for at least two years and unable to move their lower extremities, can now lift their legs, flex their ankles and support their own weight while standing with the help of an epidural stimulator, an electrical devise implanted into the spine of a person with a spinal cord injury.
An international team of scientists, including Dr. Claudia Angeli, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville’s Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, achieved the groundbreaking success through the study, which the Reeve Foundation and the National Institutes of Health funded.
In a phone interview with MyCentralJersey.com, Angeli said two of the four subjects in the study, whose results were unveiled six months ago, were diagnosed with no chance for recovery.
“It’s encouraging,” Angeli said. “They all responded with very similar results. We continue to focus and work on trying to understand the mechanisms of how this is all taking place.”
The stimulator, which sends a generalized electrical signal to the spinal cord, also enabled the four men to regain bladder and bowel control, sexual function and to regulate their blood pressure and body temperature.
“We never thought about the impact that epidural stimulation might have,” Angeli said. “It has had a great impact on the daily lives of those (four) individuals that are injured.”
Angeli said she and other researchers have secured funding from the Craig H. Neilson Foundation to implant the device in four more patients.The emphasis on the next quartet, she said, will be to study the epidural stimulator’s impact on cardiovascular and pulmonary function.
The Reeve Foundation, with the help of Nichols and others from the paralysis community, is attempting to raise $15 million so that 36 more individuals can experience the benefits of epidural stimulation.
The foundation, which is asking for a suggested minimum donation of $36, has already reached 33 percent of its fundraising goal. The Big Idea’s mission is to make epidural stimulator therapy available to all of the approximately 6 million Americans living with paralysis worldwide.
Nichols began promoting The Big Idea on Twitter last week, prompting Peter T. Wilderottert, the Reeve Foundation President and CEO to reply, “Thanks, @M_Nichs this signals a breakthrough that has the potential to change many lives. #JoinReeve ReeveBigIdea.org.”
WFAN’s Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton have invited Nichols to talk about The Big Idea on their weekday morning show (the sports radio personalities talked about Nichols and The Big Idea during last Friday’s broadcast). With his quick wit and charming personality, Nichols is an ideal spokesman for the project.
“I’m just the same old kid,” said Nichols, noting the injury has not changed who he is. “I have a sense of humor. I like to make people smile and laugh. It helps make other people know that I’m doing OK. It helps other people see that I am getting by.”
Nichols said he hopes to one day be eligible for epidural stimulator implantation, but noted he must first meet a host of requirements to qualify, including being able to remain upright in a standing frame for at least 60 seconds.
Nichols said he recently went from 3 seconds to 20 seconds in the standing frame, an increase he attributed to more stabilized blood pressure.
“I’ve been sitting down or lying down for nine months,” Nichols explained, “and my blood pressure wasn’t able to regulate itself.”
Angeli said the four men who were the first to benefit from the epidural stimulator “are doing great.”
“They’ve completed their one year of training with us and have been able to move back home,” she said. “They continue to use the stimulator and train every day at home and continue to show improvement. We bring them back for follow ups, but every so often they contact us and say, ‘Now I am able to do this.’ They keep improving even being outside of the intensive training we had.”
Nichols said the study has caused him to narrow his ever-changing goals into one tangible category for himself and others who are paralyzed. He describes it simply as being able to live in “a world without wheelchairs.”
“I just think with these four men being able to stand up and get all these functions back, it gives me confidence in myself knowing that one day I will be able to stand and walk,” Nichols said.
By Greg Tufaro