Nan Davis Takes One Small Step for Herself That May Give Hope to Other Paraplegics
updated 06/27/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 06/27/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Nan began working with Petrofsky, who had done earlier work with muscle stimulation in animals, a year ago. Their first achievement was to stimulate her legs electronically to lift weights, thus strengthening her atrophied muscles. Last November, with her weight partially supported by a parachute harness suspended from the ceiling, Nan took her first electronic step. Petrofsky's next goal was to program his new miniature computerized stimulator so Nan could walk with canes. The big problem is still balance: The computer has a hard time calculating the position of Nan's body. Says Petrofsky, "When you are working with canes or free-walking, you can't afford any errors. One mistake, a broken leg."
In addition to improving Nan's muscle tone and offering the tantalizing promise of increased mobility, electronic stimulation has also made her something of a celebrity. She has spoken at medical conventions from Las Vegas to Toronto, and in April she appeared before a House committee on funding biomedical research. Soon she will audition to play herself in a CBS-TV docudrama on Petrofsky's life.
The next step for Petrofsky, an inveterate tinkerer who met his wife, Cheryl, 36, through a computer dating service, is broader experimentation. Some critics have suggested that problems of balance and control will be insurmountable. Also, Petrofsky's devices cannot help those who have been crippled so long that their muscles cannot be built up again. But Petrofsky sees the field as eminently worthy of exploration. He hopes eventually to transfer his program onto a computer chip that could be implanted in a patient's lower torso and controlled by the patient's back and chest muscles. "I think it would be criminal to sit here with all the technology that has come out of the space program and not try to apply it," says Petrofsky. "All that's missing is the experiments that hook up the technology to the human body."
Nan Davis is helping to bridge that gap. "Adjusting to my injuries was hard at first," says Nan, a former high school sprinter. "But I was an athlete, and I have the quality of being compet itive, and that helps in the fight to over come my injury." She pauses to reflect. "You can live with your injury if you have to. But there's no reason you have to accept it."