"I basically ... just wanted to close my eyes and not wake up again," remembers Annette Coker, who was paralyzed in a car accident. It was the lowest point of Annette's life; the woman who once trained dogs to assist the disabled would now be relying on one herself.
"If it hadn't been for my sister by my side 24-7," Annette says. "She could tell you it was tough."
Imagine being an active and athletic woman, playing in a softball league and riding horses. Then one day, the life you've always known comes to a sudden end. That's what happened to Annette in 2002 when a car accident left her paralyzed.
"My body wasn't working. And my arms felt like a limp noodle," she explains.
Back then, she couldn't even wipe the tears from her eyes — and there were plenty of tears shed. But today, she can thanks to an amazing system called F.E.S.
"F.E.S. is functional electrical stimulation. And functional electrical stimulation is using low levels of electricity in order to activate nerves and muscles in order to restore movement," explains Dr. Hunter Peckham, director of the Cleveland F.E.S. Center.
With the touch of a button, Annette turns on a device much like a pacemaker that's implanted in her chest.
"This is a multi-channel implantable device," Peckham explains. "Electrodes are implanted in the body. So when the implant is turned on, it electrically stimulates the nerves in order to cause the muscles to move in motions, for example, to open and close the hands. That's under the voluntary control of the patient."
"I had these two implanted electrodes here. And I do a little twitch with my muscle in here. And that turns it on or off," says Annette. "I've always compared it to being like a toddler learning how to, you know, walk, write, eat."
It all sounds a bit like the bionic woman, but the electrical stimulations allow Annette to perform basic activities — things she said she used to take for granted.
"I can brush my hair, put some makeup on. Just the little things that we forget that we do," she says.
"She's done everything we've hoped she can do. She uses not only one hand, but both hands. And it's critical when you're doing macramé or crocheting. She can do that now," says Dr. Greg Nemunaitis, from the MetroHealth Rehabilitation Institute of Ohio
"Things are just becoming natural again," says Annette. "And I'm kind of back to talk with my hands. There's a little bit of Italian in me that says I need to talk with my hands."
"These electronic implants are perhaps the nearest, close in way of restoring or correcting major nervous system dysfunctions to the body," says Peckham.
Peckham says research is under way to advance the technology, from developing a computer network to go inside the body to implanting nerve-stimulating electrodes in the brain.
"The opportunities in the future of this I think are enormous," he says. "It involves all of the other motor systems that can be restored. The ability to stand, the ability to walk, the ability to control your bladder, are all things that we're working on."
And that's good news for Annette, who says now that she's mastering these movements, she's ready to do more.
"My dreams are that I'm gonna get out of this chair," she says. "I love to have a challenge in life. Not — I didn't really plan on such a big one. But I look at it as there's nothing that's gonna stop me at this point. And I'm gonna get it right."
Not everyone is a candidate for F.E.S. — it depends on the location and extent of the spinal cord injury. And while not everyone can expect miraculous results, even the smallest improvements are reason to celebrate.