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Barbara McKee: Walking can wait

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To buoy up the spirits of the Disability community, scientists have dragged out the rats again.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins released a report of 15 rats that were paralyzed and given stem cells to test for a cure of spinal-cord injuries. Twelve of the 15 walked sufficiently get on the news – again.

This testing of paralysis cures on rats and other rodents has been going on for over a decade. The disability community has become bored with these so-called breakthroughs, because researchers also usually discover the cure for rats would seriously harm or kill humans.

The research team at Johns Hopkins admitted the paralysis was chemically induced. The animal-cruelty folks had a fit about breaking a rat’s spine to help spinal cord injury research. Too bad. If they had used rats with true spinal cord injuries, the test results might be believable.

I’m not saying that spinal cord injury research is completely bogus. But the disability community is more interested in a real return of bodily functions, skin and nerve sensitivity, breathing without a Ventilator and other serious results of spinal cord injuries than in just walking, which is what the research is mostly about.

I would rather have my bodily functions and skin and nerve sensitivity return than my ability to walk. Not that I wouldn’t welcome walking again, but the other functions have a greater impact on my health.

Christoper Reeve, the late actor who was paralyzed, was obsessed with finding a cure to enable him to walk again. He rarely mentioned the other functions, as if they would return automatically if he regained upright mobility. Not so.

When I became disabled and wheelchair-bound, it was because of surgery on my spinal cord involving the scraping of the cord itself to remove a spider-web-like tumor. I have a mishmash of areas from the waist down that work and don’t work. I can raise my right leg but cannot move my foot. I can feel pain from injuries below the epidermis but feel nothing from a pin-prick.

I was taught to walk with braces and a walker, but I quickly gave it up because of painful bursitis in both hips, along with extreme pain in my shoulders from carrying my body weight and the weight of the steel braces.

It’s this kind of aggravation the spinal cord injury community wants to be relieved of. If spinal cord injury researchers would take a poll of the wheelchair-users of the world, they would find out just what kind of cures we are hoping for. They would find that the ability to walk would rank fifth or lower on the list of body functions we miss the most.

Researchers should be working first on the possibility of returning bladder and bowel functions. After that, they might start working on a complete cure.

McKee, a wheelchair user, is a freelance writer and producer.

By Barbara McKee
Tribune Columnist

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