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In a clinic in Louisville, WISN 12 News producer Stephanie Miller now moves her toes and ankles, and bends her knees – some of the exercises she does each day thanks to epidural stimulation. Before joining The Big Idea, a research study at the University of Louisville, funded by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, “I could not move anything,” Miller said.
Miller is a longtime news and sports producer at WISN 12 in Milwaukee. In June 2022, she became one of 36 participants in The Big Idea group. Last summer, doctors surgically implanted a stimulator in her back. When the device is turned on, the stimulator helps reawaken and fire up her muscles.
She’s in a clinic at UofL Health, training five days a week, three hours each day. 12 News visited Miller in October, two weeks into her training. During that visit, she stood for a combined 30 minutes in three increments. During a return visit in late April, she stood for a combined two hours in all. “I am feeling in my brain that I’m doing it,” she said. “I don’t necessarily see it, but the trainers can see it. So, if they tell me to squeeze and I squeeze, I don’t necessarily feel myself squeezing, but they can feel it squeezing. The message is getting through, which is encouraging.” Her goal is to stand independently on both legs at the same time for the full two hours. She said independent standing is her biggest accomplishment so far.
“She’s progressing great,” said Claudia Angeli, Ph.D., a co-investigator in the study. “What we’re able to see now is that she has some level of independence at the knees, which is what we would hope to see during standing. She’s able to engage and actually contract the quadriceps, which will give her that extension during standing on both legs.” Angeli said the stimulation is not making Miller stand. Instead, it’s a tool they’re teaching her how to use to gain her independence.
As Miller stood, Angeli looked on, pointing to the concentration on her face. “Her intent,” she said, “you see her face, how hard she’s trying. So all those signals are coming through and getting integrated at the spinal cord. Without the stimulation, the spinal cord is not able to hear that information coming through and interpret it. So, it’s kind of raising the volume a little bit on the spinal cord.” In addition to standing longer, Angeli said Miller is stronger and her endurance has also improved.
The work is exhausting, but the payoff could help her and others with spinal cord injuries. “It is life-changing that I’m able to be doing it,” she said. “I’m eager to see then how that is going to apply to my life in general, whether it will change anything.”