These are giant steps for Merger, 39, who lost the use of his legs in an auto accident 10 years ago. He is the first among a handful of experimental subjects—he hates being called a guinea pig—in a nascent European program using electrostimulation to activate otherwise unusable muscles. A microchip implanted in his abdomen receives radio signals from an external transmitter that orders his muscles to contract, allowing him to walk. So far he can go only a short distance, but his doctors say that should improve as technology advances. "In a way," he says, "I feel like a test pilot, like part of a Formula One team."
The experiment is not a cure for paralysis and will not directly help those with spinal injuries as severe as actor Christopher Reeve's. But it could lead to restoring movement for about 10 percent of paraplegics—those whose injuries are at a certain level on the spine. "Marc doesn't run like before," says Pierre Rabischong, 67, the biomedical researcher at the University of Montpellier in southern France who is heading the project, "but to be able to walk with his own muscles is very important."
For Merger, a business professor at two colleges near his home in Strasbourg, France, it has been a long time between walks. The youngest—with twin sister Isabelle—of five children of a Strasbourg industrialist and his wife, Merger studied economics at the University of Paris and worked in that city before moving to Strasbourg's Banque de Suez, where he became a director in 1987.
At the time, his personal life was dominated by fast cars and attractive women. While vacationing in southern France in 1989, Merger met Véronique Delange, a business student from Nice. "I knew from the minute I met Marc that he was the one," she says. The relationship took off, and eight months later the two were engaged. But on an overnight drive from Nice to Strasbourg in December 1990, Merger fell asleep at the wheel of his sleek Peugeot GTI 205. The sports car went over a divider and into a ditch. "We were both thrown out of the car," he says. "It was lucky because the car was totaled."
Véronique, 33, suffered a broken shoulder and a concussion, but Merger had more serious injuries. "I was more dead than alive," he says. "I had broken ribs, broken vertebrae." Mostly unconscious for two weeks, he awoke to bad news: "They told me right away that I was handicapped—paraplegic—that I would spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair." Undeterred, Véronique went ahead with their marriage plans. "There was no question of my leaving him," she says. Merger was released from the hospital in March, and the couple were wed four months later. They now have a daughter, Estelle, 6, and a son, Hugo, 3.
Counseling helped Merger cope with his condition. "I went through the phase of 'Why me?' " he says. "Part of the therapy was learning how to accept myself, psychologically, as I was." That same year Merger learned about electrostimulation from TV and promptly contacted Rabischong. "The technology made sense to me," Merger says. But it wasn't until 1996 that the project, called Stand Up and Walk, got funding and he became its first experimental subject. "He was in the category of those with spinal injuries that leave the muscles intact," says Rabischong.
In September 1999 Merger underwent a 14-hour operation to implant the electrodes and microchip, but the set malfunctioned and a second was put in in March. Merger is elated with his progress. "When I first started, I could stand for two, three minutes. Now it's more than a half hour," he says. "They call me the bionic man."
Cathy Nolan in Strasbourg