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Paralyzed Boca Raton surfer is 'ambassador' for Red Bull run

Red Bull's Wings for Life World Run raises money for paralysis research.

Three years ago, spinal cord research in Kentucky was the farthest thing from Brooke Thabit's mind. But on Labor Day 2012, she dove from a Jupiter dock into shallow water and crushed the C-4 and C-5 vertebrae, leaving her paralyzed.

That's "paralyzed," not "paralyzed for life," Thabit says, because medical advancements are helping people like her improve their general health, stand up and even walk. The procedure that most excites her is called epidural stimulation, in which doctors insert a device about the size of a cell phone that helps the brain bypass the injured portion of the spinal column. In 2103, all four patients in a test study in Louisville, each paralyzed for at least two years, reportedly stood — the longest for four minutes — and took small steps after receiving epidural stimulation.

"Now, you see people actually walking, and it's actually happening," says Thabit, 19, of Boca Raton. "I've been hurt only two years, but it's amazing to see that it's working."

Thabit is an "ambassador' for the Red Bull's Wings for Life World Run, a race that on May 3 will take place simultaneously in 35 cities worldwide. One of those cities is Sunrise, which also participated in the inaugural run in 2014. Runners' entry fees go toward spinal cord research, and with a breakthrough appearing to be looming, that money is vital, Thabit says.

"Hopefully, the funding will move it along quickly," she says. "Knowing that it's close definitely helps me stay positive, not give up."

In March, the Wings for Life Spinal Cord Research Foundation and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation announced a partnership that may lead to a clinical study in the United States this year. They need $15 million to test 36 people.

Thabit isn't at all assured of being part of that study. But she prepares by training three days a week at NeuroFit 360 in Pembroke Pines, which specializes in rehabilitating the paralyzed.

Thabit warms up by punching the air and twisting her torso. NeuroFit360 owner Guy Romain places support boots on Thabit's legs, then helps her stand. Because she has no feeling in her legs, Romain sets mirrors around her so she can eyeball her body and balance accordingly.

It used to take three people to help Thabit stand. Now, Romain does it by himself. A surfer sponsored by Ohana Surf Shop in Stuart before her accident, Thabit is considered a good candidate for medical advancements because she was in such stellar condition when she suffered her injury, Romain says.

"Day to day, you don't notice the change, but when I look at old videos, I say, 'Oh, yeah, I remember that,'" says Thabit, whose mother, Alison, is quick with to film her on a cell phone.

Romain holds Thabit up, noting, "The next goal is to let her go."

He straps a harness over her shoulders and lifts her like a puppet onto a treadmill. He guides her knees as the treadmill's speed approaches 5 mph.

Neither Thabit's brain nor legs were injured in the accident, but the spinal injury means her brain can't tell her legs what to do. So by flexing, planting and pushing off, with her arms working all the while, Thabit and Romain are experimenting with something called neuroplasticity: They're hoping the brain will find an alternative way to communicate with the legs.

"When I see him working that hard with me, I really can't slack off," Thabit says, panting on the treadmill. "But this is really hard."

Thabit grew up in Boca Raton and attended Boca Raton High before moving to Jensen Beach after her freshman year. She is now back in the Boca Raton house in which she grew up and is taking classes at Palm Beach State College.

The epidural stimulation studies are taking place in Louisville, where Dr. Susan Harkema is rehabilitation research director at the University of Louisville's Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center. She is also the director of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation's NeuroRecovery Network.

"I would say there's a lot of research going on in spinal cord injuries that could have the potential to impact people, not just our work," Harkema says. "And that's a brand-new thing."

But in the United States, she says, insurance companies are reluctant to pay for rehabilitative measures such as epidural stimulation, and the Food and Drug Administration must approve it. Physicians and physical therapists need training, and while the technology is close, it must be honed. "But right now, you can see the potential," Harkema says.

Seven people, all of whom were at one time completely paralyzed in their legs, can now move their legs voluntarily, and some can stand independently, Harkema says. They have undergone stimulation, and muscle memory allows them to move without the help of a machine. "They're not like they were before the injury, but it's a big incremental step," she says.

Neuroscientist John Donoghue, director of the Brown University Institute for Brain Science, is not affiliated with Harkema or Wings for Life, but considers epidural stimulation to be a breakthrough.

Roderic Pettigrew, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering at the National Institutes of Health, told Medscape Medical News, a WebMD website, that epidural stimulation is "exciting news" and "a milestone."

"It means that a spinal cord injury may no longer mean a lifelong sentence of permanent paralysis," he told Medscape.

Harkema says that even if the test subjects don't recover to the point of standing, they experience better blood pressure, better temperature regulation and possible improvements in bowl and bladder control.

"I think it's really amazing, and inspiring to see all those people who have made so much progress in something we had been told would never be possible," Thabit says. "People are actually walking. It definitely helps me stay positive, not give up. You see that it's actually happening."

Registration for the Wings for Life World Run costs $50 and ends Sunday, April 26. The Sunrise race will begin 7 a.m. May 3. Go to WingsForLifeWorldRun.com.

Nsortal@SouthFlorida.com

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