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