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Paralyzed No More

Six years after a football tackle broke Damion Cummins' neck, he can once again shave, pick up the phone and pull his kid sister's hair.

In fact, the mild yank on 13-year-old Tiffany's hair was the most fun Cummins had gotten so far out of the electrodes, wires and electrical stimulator that were implanted in his hand, arm and chest in January.

"I think she had been deserving it," the 21-year-old said. "Just years of antagonizing. Being a little sister."

The system that gave him back such freedom was developed in Cleveland. The first implant, 12 years ago, went to an Akron, Ohio, man.

Cummins was paralyzed at 15 in a high school game. Despite his injury, he went snorkeling and used sit-down skis on snow and water. He also just finished his sophomore year at Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe.

But for years, someone else had to take his notes, comb his hair, pick up and open his books, and change CDs or the TV channel.

Now, he is among nearly 90 people around the country using the NeuroControl Freehand implant system, which got federal approval last August. By twitching his left shoulder, he can tell his right hand and arm what to do.

Cummins' implant was possible because his neck broke low enough to allow some use of his arms. For example, if someone strapped a brace to his right hand and then put a fork into it, he could feed himself.

Insurance covered the five-hour $50,000 operation at Willis-Knighton Hospital in Shreveport -- one of 16 centers in the country with surgeons trained for the operation -- and the hours of rehabilitation since then.

At the start of the day, an attendant sticks one end of a pencil-size joystick to Cummins' left shoulder, and the other to his chest. Twitching his shoulder sends electrical messages to a wheelchair-mounted computer, which relays them to a transmitter coil taped over the stimulator in his chest.

That, in turn, sends current to the electrodes a sophisticated, controlled version of the electrical burst that made detached frog legs jump in 1783 and galvanized the world.

The Freehand system was developed by researchers at a Cleveland consortium. It is manufactured by NeuroControl Corp. of Cleveland.

About 54,000 of 200,000 paralyzed people in the United States still have some use of their arms or hands and can use Freehand, according to Geoff Thrope, biomedical engineer and one of the developers of Freehand. People as badly paralyzed as actor Christopher Reeve cannot.

During Cummins' very first training session, he was picking things up. He went out that night to a Mexican restaurant, practicing and celebrating. But tortilla chips were a problem: "Every time I'd pick one up, I'd break it."

With practice and a bit of reprogramming, he got those chips under control. He cannot write fast enough yet to take notes in class, but his writing is getting faster and neater.

Dr. Robert Cuinard, chief of hand surgery at LSU Medical Center, said he sees a number of drawbacks with Freehand: The movement is slow; the system is complicated; the electrodes can break, and when they do they're hard to find and remove.

But NeuroControl spokeswoman Susan Krebs said: "We've had 88 implants. One person had his system removed due to an infection that was basically not from getting checked quick enough. Four electrodes have broken. That's less than 1 percent. They were easily removed in each case."

James Jatich, of Akron, who got the first implant in 1986, said every one of the wires is still intact. He has an experimental wrist controller: Moving the wrist up opens his hand; moving it down closes it.

He used to need an attendant to put on braces, hold the telephone to his ear, put a straw in his drink, put disks into his computer, comb his hair, and do other little things most people don't even think about.

Now, once he is out of bed and in his clothes and chair, he's on his own.

Was it worth it? Absolutely, Jatich said: "It's changed my life 100 percent."

Written by Janet Mcconnaughey
©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed