History Conjures Up Electricity-Aided Walking, but a Too-Daring Pilot

John Connor avatar

by John Connor |

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Electriclty-aided walking

It seems I’ve made it to my second weekly column. I was going to write about a non-MS physical impairment that had kept me down for a month. It’s easing now and hopefully will make a future story with a happy ending.

Instead I’m going to do a bang-up-to-the-moment piece about happy walking news. I’ve drawn inspiration for the column from a romantic novelist and a World War II hero.

As a physiotherapist attached electrodes to my right calf on Monday, it struck me that the science behind the electrodes is what prompted Mary Shelley to write “Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus.” I’m a stickler for a book’s title, and in this case was well aware which of the names in the title was an anti-hero and which the monster.

In the 1800s, physicist Giovanni Aldini based his European touring show on attaching early batteries, or Leyden jars, to cadavers. This prompted the bodies to twitch in front of a no doubt gawking audience.

He must have been quite the showman because he started the demonstrations in Italy but ended up in France and London. No Brexit worries for him at the time —  just the trifle of skirting a Napoleonic war.  Mary S was not reported to have attended a demonstration. But, as it was the talk of  Europe, many people think it was the root for her story.

All very impressive, this lurid inkling of history. What was not impressive was my inability to link it to a way to help me walk.  Although a bit of a non-academic science nerd — if you can retain nerd-dom approaching your 60s — part of me thought that using electricity to trigger movement was still in the magic realm.

What is very real is that you often have to discover information like this on your own, and drive yourself to obtain it. Neither my neurologist nor general practitioner knew anything about it.

Luckily  my un-nerd-like wife steered me toward a Functional Electrical Stimulation, or FES, demonstration at an MS conference.

“It walks!”

Yes, and about twice as fast as usual. Now I may even be able to give the odd zombie — well, they’re all a bit odd — a competitive race over the first few meters.

I’ve been dragging my right leg around for year now, and have the dreaded dropped foot that so many of us with multiple sclerosis do.  FES can feel like you’re rubbing yourself repeatedly against a cow fence, the single metal wires that ranchers use to contain a herd — again magical. But FES’s low-level shock is rewarding.

Last night at work I was actually able to walk a short distance on my own. Of course I paid for it later with increased fatigue and an early wheelchair. But there’s joy in regaining something of your old self,  however small and fleeting.

My FES tryout this Monday went brilliantly. Instead of having to go back a few times before I received the equipment, the whole shebang was handed to me during the appointment. I’m supposed to practice every day. I gave it a field test yesterday, but as I’ve spent today writing this article, I admit to being a bad monster.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering about the war hero.

The clinic I attended was close to one named after the flying ace Douglas Bader, a former patient.  If you’re British, his story is iconic. I was feeling brilliant, and fleetingly thought of walking out of the hospital. But as a history buff, I also knew that before the war, in a moment of euphoria, he did a low-altitude barrel roll and crashed, losing his legs. When Britain needed all the fighter pilots it could get, it let him fly with artificial legs.

Sensibly I stood down and rolled out of the hospital.

But Monday was a good day.


Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.



Marcie Schonborn avatar

Marcie Schonborn

I'm so excited for you, can just imagine what it feels like. Wishing you continued great walks, and hopefully a way to not get to tired after each. Maybe it will get better with time ?. Walk On!

Scot59 avatar


Thank you Mr. Conner! Mr.Conner is exactly correct, "Spot on!" I was dragging around a plastic "peg leg" (AFO)brace for almost two years, when I asked the Neurologist at the University of Chicago, "Do these FES devices work?" His response was, "Oh yes, I'll write you a prescription right now!" The first time I walked semi-normal using a "WalkAide" to lift my toes for me, I was near tears. Not cool for a 50+ year old man's "cool" image. If there is such a thing. I found this WalkAide thru an ad in a medical publication. Nobody ever mentioned them to me and that after about 5 years of spending time with various doctors concerning my MS. As I said it was a good two years that I was not able to lift my toes on my left foot, to actually do "something like a walk." It was more like "a drag." I was and still am, after about 5 years with the WalkAide still working full time and commuting 2-1/2 hours everyday. I've had other set back, such as a torn meniscus and some lower back issues, but if not for the WalkAide I would be wheelchair bound. I can still walk into a restaurant or walk around my house with only this great FES strapped above my calf and 2 canes. And that gives me more satisfaction than I can even express. Why is this not something that is mentioned immediately to people who have foot-drop due to MS? I've heard the same from other's with MS and foot drop, that is never being told of these wonderful devices. Please, let's get the word out there! I'm sure this would give many the ability to walk again. And until it's been taken from you, you can never know what that's like. Thank you for the great article. By the way Mr. Conner, "Black Books" is ones of my favorite shows! Keep at it!

Pam Dimoff avatar

Pam Dimoff

Hi I also have drop foot on my right side. I went and
tried the walk aide and the bioness device. They are
magical for sure. I was able to walk and was so happy I could do so. I wanted to get either device, then I learned that insurance does not cover the device, for someone that has MS. They will cover it if you have had a brain injury and agree to take 30 visits of PT along with it. Well, MS is damage to the brain and Medicare and/or insurance will not cover it. The devices are very expensive and without the help of insurance, it is totally out of reach for me. I had explained to Medicare and my insurance this is a device that would improve my quality of life and they would not hear it. I think this is terrible that insurance will not update approval process to help people walk again. I truly believe
they need a better education and understanding of how this device can really change a persons life.


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