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Getting a Grip

Previous to the experiment in Cleveland, the last time Jatich had thought his hand into motion was on a hot summer night in 1977. He and some friends had spent the day housepainting in Akron, Ohio, and decided to cool off with a swim in nearby Portage Lake. “I was the last one to dive in and I hit something,” Jatich recalls matter-of-factly. “I saw stars and knew right away what happened. I was stunned and sank to the bottom, my face in seaweed.”

In that split-second, Jatich went from being a healthy junior engineer at tire-maker Firestone to a C5-C6 quadriplegic. The spinal damage, between his fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae, left Jatich’s legs totally immobilized, though he retained some shoulder and arm movement, and could raise his left wrist. According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, accidents cause about 10,000 spinal cord injuries in the United States each year. Of the estimated 200,000 paralysis victims in the United States, about half are paraplegics who’ve lost sensation and movement in their legs, and half are quadriplegics suffering from paralysis in all four limbs.

As he lay convalescing in Cleveland’s Highland View Rehabilitation Hospital, Jatich was approached by Peckham, then a young Case Western Reserve scientist seeking a volunteer to work with him on an FES system for restoring hand motion. Patient and researcher were embarking on lifelong quests for new spinal cord injury treatments. Jatich was inspired by necessity. Peckham’s motivation originated in a magazine article he’d read in college about mechanical heart valves, which opened his eyes to the notion that “engineers can do something to help mankind.” In graduate school, Peckham fell in with a group of biomedical engineers involved in early efforts to use electrical stimulation to restore function to skeletal muscles; “I became fascinated with it,” Peckham says, “and that was the last time I thought in depth about the vascular system.”

FES experiments in the late 1970s and early 1980s were less than elegant. In his work with Peckham, Jatich saw wires threaded through his wrist with a needle in a trial-and-error hunt to provoke movement in the correct muscle groups. The protruding electrodes were connected to a computer in Peckham’s lab, which fired off signals to the muscles in various configurations. The computer was large and stationary, and the electrodes broke frequently, yet Jatich’s hand did move, and he was able to pick up objects, though his control was far from adequate.

It took two decades for Peckham to perfect his invention, now known as Freehand, and which in 1997 became the first implantable FES device to receive U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for wide use. About 160 quadriplegics now use Freehand to write, feed themselves, perform personal grooming, and, in some cases, even manually operate a computer. The Cleveland company founded by Peckham to sell the device, NeuroControl, has just raised $4.5 million in venture capital money to step up marketing of Freehand and a bladder-control device called VOCARE.

Today, Jatich uses Freehand to close his right hand by activating a “joystick” taped to his left shoulder. Pushing his shoulder forward, the joystick signals a computer carried on his wheelchair, which then sends a series of timed electrical pulses to eight platinum electrodes implanted next to nerves feeding the muscles that close his hand. Separate shoulder commands let Jatich lock the grip, or release it.

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