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Pacemaker lets paralyzed patient finally breathe free

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    Pacemaker lets paralyzed patient finally breathe free

    Pacemaker lets paralyzed patient finally breathe free



    breath of freedom
    Diaphragm pacing stimulation system

    Jennifer Simpson inhaled air through her nose and mouth for the first time in 15 years Wednesday, her chest expanding on its own, her diaphragm contracting as if it were hardly out of practice.

    It lasted only 10 minutes, at which point doctors put the 18-year-old Pearland woman back on the ventilator that has kept her alive since a swing set toppled onto her when she was 3 years old, breaking her neck and paralyzing her from the neck down.

    But in those 10 minutes, thanks to an experimental device, Simpson got a glimpse of what doctors believe can be her future: life without a ventilator.

    "It felt weird at first," said Simpson, describing the experience by cell phone hours later. "But it got pretty comfortable. I'm excited about the prospect of not having to use a ventilator."

    The device, known as a diaphragm pacing system, was implanted Wednesday at The Methodist Hospital. Surgeons sutured the system's electrodes to nerves in Simpson's diaphragm, then attached them to wires connected to a small external battery pack that uses electrical jolts to stimulate breathing. For now, Simpson's pack is set to stimulate breathing 14 times a minute.

    As her diaphragm gets stronger, she is expected to breathe without the aid of her ventilator for increasing periods. Eventually, her doctors say, she should be able to come off the ventilator completely.

    The first in Texas
    Simpson is the first Texan and the 64th person nationwide to get the device, which doctors predict should win U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval in a year or so. The late actor Christopher Reeve received one in 2004, becoming the third person to get the device.

    Methodist is one of three centers in the United States implanting the device as part of a study. It expects to be a training site, as well, once the FDA grants approval.

    Simpson, who recently finished her freshman year at Houston Community College, has been on a waiting list of sorts for the device since she was 14, although FDA protocol prevents it from being implanted before a patient is 18. She saw it at the time on television.

    The accident that made her a quadriplegic made news back in May 1992. A happy-go-lucky kid, she was at church when the swing set fell on her and crushed her spine.

    "Life changed in three minutes," said Ann Simpson, her mother. "We soon learned an ugly word: ventilator-dependent."

    Despite the limitation, Jennifer Simpson has done well for herself. An interior design student at HCC — which she attends in person, not online — she designed an "art room" in a converted shed in her family's backyard. There, she colors and draws using her mouth and a head-mount system that helps her grab and hold pencils and brushes, as well as move a computer mouse. She also sings in a school choir.

    Still, Simpson's pacemaker promises much more: independence, the ability to smell and taste again, improved vocal skills and a longer life expectancy.

    "There are stories after stories of how this device changes people's lives," said Dr. Brian Dunkin, the endoscopic surgeon at Methodist who implanted Simpson's pacemaker. "They get married, travel, take up painting. It's remarkable what being freed from a ventilator can mean."


    This is a good example of the QOL improvements that can come from investing in SCI research.


      Gotta hand it to our competitor, Medtronic, for making this device. Our smaller company can't afford to design & build diaphragmatic stimulators due to the limited market size (at least that's what management says).
      - Richard