Rehabilitation gets some footpower
5:48 am August 20th, 2014
Northwest Nazarene University students Mark Horton, David Vinson (from left) and Paulo Salvador (second from right) designed a walking rehabilitation machine for Richelle Heacock. Her physical therapist is Ron Stone (right). (NNU/courtesy photo)
By Elisa Rau
One moment in 2010 changed Richelle Heacock’s life forever.
The multi-sport athlete was driving home to Ashford when she was in a car accident that left her paralyzed and forced her to face life in a wheelchair instead of on the volleyball court.
Three years later, in the fall of 2013, Northwest Nazarene University engineering student David Vinson, who’s from Elbe and is a childhood friend of Heacock, brought her situation to the attention of his engineering project team. They decided to use their senior design project course to try to help Heacock fulfill her dream of walking again.
“When a person has a spinal cord injury, it is easy to sit back and watch inactivity eat away at your muscles. For any person, this is very frightening, but as an athlete, it is unbearable,” said Heacock.
In spite of the potential for self-pity, Heacock – who recently was hired as the volleyball coach at Eatonville High School, her alma mater – is optimistic.
“I don’t believe God spared me out of that wreck so I can sit in a chair for the rest of my life,” she said.
That’s where Vinson and his project teammates – Paulo Salvador (from Sao Paulo, Brazil) and Mark Horton (Nyssa, Ore.) – came in. The goal of their project was to design a walking rehabilitation machine to assist paraplegic patients in the process of learning how to walk again. Research shows that replication of the walking motion can help retrain nerves in the lower spine and legs to regain the memory of how to walk.
Dr. Stephen Parke, Northwest Nazarene faculty advisor on the project, explained the NNU “simple mechanical system mimics natural walking motion of the feet, ankles, and legs while the patient is suspended in a safety harness above a treadmill, allowing the soles of the feet to gently touch the treadmill surface that activates walking-nerve impulses.”
There are other more sophisticated, similar machines currently available, but access to them is difficult due to high cost. Heacock and her family would have to travel to distant rehab centers in order to use these expensive machines. The NNU team’s goal was to design an inexpensive, simple system that could be used everyday at home with only one assisting therapist.
“Walking rehabilitation systems currently on the market are very expensive, so we wanted to attempt to design a system that would be much more affordable,” Horton said.
With only one school year to complete the project, the team began their work in September 2013. “Our original ambitions were just that – very ambitious,” Vinson said. “Fortunately, we were able to simplify the system down to only what we needed.”
They quickly learned they needed outside help. Ron Stone, Heacock’s physical therapist for the past three years, proved to be a valuable resource in order to make sure that their design would not only be helpful but also safe.
“Anything that makes the rehabilitation process simpler and smoother truly improves everyday life, as well as makes recovery and healing a more fathomable outcome,” Heacock said.
The team produced a “proof-of-concept” prototype of their design, which was demonstrated at NNU Senior Project Day on the Nampa, Idaho campus in April and will be delivered to Stone this summer.
“I’m trying not to get too excited,” Vinson said, “but if it is effective for Richelle, there is the possibility that it could be used to help others, as well.”
Vinson is not alone. Stone is also enthusiastic about what the team accomplished.
“This project demonstrated the students’ ability to synthesize what they have learned and apply it to an urgent, compassionate engineering problem. I applaud their outcome,” Stone said.
After the design is delivered to Stone, it will undergo more engineering testing and safety evaluation before being used by Heacock in her home.
“I am so blessed that I crossed paths with such wonderful human beings who care about others and are willing to help,” Heacock said.
Northwest Nazarene, a Christian university, was founded in 1913 and now now serves over 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students, more than 6,000 continuing-education students, and 2,300 high school students through the concurrent credit program.
Elisa Rau, a senior nursing student from Portland, Ore., is a marketing and media intern at Northwest Nazarene University.