Byline: Christian Toto, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Seventeen-year-old Van Brooks felt somewhat out of place talking to adults with spinal cord injuries after his own paralyzing accident last fall. Sure, the older men and women gave him some good tips on how to adjust to being paralyzed from the waist down, but the young man wanted something different - a connection with a peer.
"It's easier for me to talk to someone my age," the Baltimore resident says.
Now young patients like Van will have peers with whom to talk, and doctors specifically trained to work with younger paralysis patients.
The Kennedy Krieger Institute's new International Center for Spinal Cord Injury in Baltimore is designed to care for and treat spinal cord injury patients younger than 18. It's a group given short shrift by the larger spinal cord injury community, in part because experts say only about 20 percent of spinal cord injury patients are children. The center's creators say it's the only facility of its kind in the world, dedicated solely to treating children with this type of injury.
Van says it took time for him to deal with the accident he suffered while playing football in September at Georgetown Preparatory School in Rockville.
His doctors acted more swiftly on his behalf. He was flown to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma unit, where he endured surgery to release pressure on his spinal cord.
From there he went to Kernan Hospital in Baltimore for physical therapy and later to the center to take part in its rehabilitation and restoration program, part of center director Dr. John McDonald's approach to treating patients with spinal cord injuries.
Dr. McDonald previously served as Christopher Reeve's neurologist, putting the "Superman" actor through his physical paces to help him regain some sensation in his limbs.
Dr. McDonald's activity-based restoration therapies (ABR) shocked the medical community with their results and affirmed that spinal cord patients have some hope of minor recovery.
Those gains, no matter how small, could be larger when the therapies are used on children.
"Younger nervous systems have a greater capacity for recovery," Dr. McDonald says.
Children with spinal cord trauma have other advantages over older patients as well.
"They're not as gravitationally challenged. They can be moved around because they're smaller," he says.
Their general innocence also can boost their chances. When an adult learns he or she has suffered a paralyzing injury, the first response often is hopelessness. That's not necessarily the case with children, he says.
"Children don't know any better," he says. "If you tell them 'no,' they often go and do the opposite."
The center offers 60 inpatient beds and is slated to see more than 100 patients a month. Patients will come from all over the country and around the world, Dr. McDonald says.
The goal isn't to make patients dependent on the center's facilities, but rather to prepare them for a time when they can duplicate the motion exercises in their own homes.
Those options include exercise-style bicycles with computer-controlled pulses to stimulate the legs into action and reverse muscle wasting caused by inactivity.
One such device allows a paralyzed person to roll his or her wheelchair into a cyclelike machine, which then beams data on workouts to both the Kennedy Krieger center and the patient's local doctors via the Internet.
Jeffery Twiss, a senior research scientist at the Alfred I. du Pont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., says his own pessimism on the chance for any type of recovery among spinal cord victims has turned around in recent years.
"I thought it was a hopeless situation," Mr. Twiss says. "Over the years, there have been a lot of small steps. Put them together, and it's a huge step with what's possible now. …