The Walk Again Project: James Cameron’s “Avatar” Comes to Life
When I first met Daniel, he was sitting in one of the hallways of UVU picking at his guitar and singing to passersby. With on-the-spot songs composed for strangers who lingered, he seemed every inch an entertainer. I was immediately impressed by his quick wit and ability to turn a phrase (not to mention the impish grin he flashes after an artful joke), but what caught my attention the most was the expression behind his eyes. They seemed to hide a certain mystery, and I, like any natural sleuth, was intrigued enough to make a mental note to take the opportunity (should it present itself) to investigate Daniel’s deeper levels.
I saw him often on campus, usually performing improvised music for an impromptu group of students or headed cheerfully to this class or that – always with his guitar on his back. I noticed that he seemed to have a characteristic gait; it was almost a strut, as though he were walking with a purpose.
To my surprise, Daniel disclosed to me some time later that it hadn’t been that long ago that he couldn’t walk at all. I invited him to tell his story for this blog, and to ask his opinion on the latest research surrounding exoskeletons in development for para- and quadriplegics.
“I used to run all the time,” Daniel told me this afternoon over lunch at Denny’s. “I had two miles at 9 minutes 32 seconds. My mile was at 4:12. I really wanted to break the four-minute mile. When I was a kid, I used to sneak out of my house at night and run cross country. I’d go to the football stadium and just run the bleachers. I was really, really fast.
“Back in early Spring of 2000,” Daniel recalled, “I was in the Air Force and stationed in Texas. My then spouse was due with our baby any week and I had just secured off-base housing for us when I noticed that my right foot began to swell. It was as swollen as a grapefruit around my ankle and the top of my foot when I went to have it checked out. The earliest appointment wasn’t for another week, so I told my Sergeant that I didn’t think I could run that day. He said to me, ‘I’d better see you run, and if I even see you slow down, I’ll write you a letter of reprimand.’ If I got a letter of reprimand,” Daniel explained as he picked at his salad, “I would have to stay on base while my spouse went into labor. I didn’t want to miss the baby, so I ran.
“It was a three mile run, but by the first mile and a half, my hip started hurting, and I was limping by the end. I faked the jumping jacks afterwards, but it wasn’t until the flutter kicks that I felt my tendon tear out of place. The doctors told me I had Iliopsoas. They also called it Snapping Hip Syndrome. That’s pain in the tendon that connects your hip to your lower lumbar. It was loud, the sound of it snapping across my pelvis, like a horse chewing on an apple. After that, I couldn’t move my leg.”
I watched Daniel grow silent from my place across the table. He stared out the window with a serious expression. All trace of the entertainer gone, his voice was quiet and full of emotion when he spoke again.
“Another soldier called the ambulance, since I couldn’t move my leg, and the whole time I kept thinking, ‘I’m in so much trouble.’” Another pause. “Sometimes the pain would be so severe, I would vomit. I remember taking a bath – because I couldn’t stand in the shower – and then slipping and having to clean puke off myself. I just felt so… trapped.”
Daniel sat quietly, still picking at his salad and lost in thought. “Such a messed up time in my life.”
“You told me once that you spent 9 years in a wheelchair,” I said. “What made you decide to learn to walk again? And what was it like?”
“It was hell,” Daniel said simply. “I mean, not being able to walk didn’t just affect me. My family was affected, I was extremely depressed, and I had a lot of anger. I felt trapped even on crutches. One doctor offered to snap off the tendon completely, so I wouldn’t have any more pain. I told him no, because I had this feeling that I would walk again.
“I remember being angry a lot. I had to learn how to use my left leg a lot more, and I had to be careful because if I used it too much, it would hurt, too. I remember sitting on a park bench and watching people cross the street and thinking how hard it was, thinking, ‘How do they do that?’ I started parking my car in the back of the parking lot. Sometimes it would take me 30 or 40 minutes just to cross the parking lot. I fell a lot. I still fall.”
“Do you still have pain?” I asked Daniel, who was eating his salad now.
“I don’t remember what life before pain feels like,” he answered matter-of-factly.
I suddenly remembered Daniel’s gait. It wasn’t a strut at all, I realized. It was the result of endless hours of dogged determination, of gritting teeth and fighting through it, of refusing to accept anything less than walking after a debilitating injury. Not for the first time, I reevaluated my perceptions of the people I think I know.
“There are these monkeys at the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering,” I said. “They have learned how to move a virtual avatar hand with their brains, and they are now able to experience virtual textures. The science surrounding this is developing an exoskeleton for people who can’t walk, to enable them to walk again and have sensory experiences. Would you have used this technology to help you walk, if it had been available all those years ago?”
“I would have at least tried it,” Daniel said, “assuming I had the money. I tried everything: Acupuncture, essential oils (which were both pretty beneficial), ultrasound therapy, all sorts of leg stretches, water therapy. But it would depend on whether or not it would be more trouble than it’s worth. I mean, I have less pain with a wheelchair, but it’s such a huge pain in the ass. I would have tried it, though. I would even try it now.”
“This new science from Duke University makes me think of that movie Avatar, you know?” I told Daniel. “I thought of that scene when Jake Sully first plugs into his avatar body and immediately gets up and starts running. When I read about the monkeys and remembered that the main character of Avatar was in a wheelchair, I thought,’I've got to call my friend Dan and ask him what he thinks about this.’”
“Oh, that scene made me cry,” Daniel said as we walked out of Denny’s and back to my car, parked two blocks away (on the walk back, Daniel explained the mechanics of his walk, and how he still has little use of his right leg). “That was the hardest part of the movie to watch. I mean, he was a Marine, and I was a soldier, too, and when you spend that much of your life being physical and lose your mobility… people just don’t understand.”
People may not understand, but science does. There are a few advances in science that make me queasy, but so far, the only question I have about Duke University’s Walk Again Project is:
When will it be ready?