Eleven days into a new therapy at neuroscientist Susan Harkema's lab at the University of Louisville, 24-year-old Kent Stephenson was making exactly the kind of progress researchers had told him to expect: That is to say, none at all.
Stephenson had been paralyzed from the chest down in a motocross accident in 2009. For almost three years, doctors had been saying he'd be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. "It was, 'Here's your painkillers, here's how to apply for disability,'" he says. "I was told I should look into full-time care. But I never gave up hope."
That determination had brought him to Louisville, KY, where Harkema's team — along with colleagues at UCLA — had been working on a new therapy: They would deliver electrical pulses to the spine below a patient's injury, intending to "wake up" the dormant nerves and remind them they had a job to do. The scientists' first attempt with a patient showed promise, but because Stephenson couldn't move or feel anything below his chest, they kept his hopes at rock bottom.
"They said, 'It's not going to work, but we need someone to prove it's not going to work,'" he says. "I had a girlfriend, and it was going to take months, so part of me thought I should just go home to Texas and try to get on with my life."
Instead, he stayed. On that 11th day, at the end of a long, dull series of tests, he was asked to move his left leg. It was something he'd tried and failed to do so many times that Harkema wasn't even in the room. But then, up went Stephenson's knee, for the first time since his accident.
"My mom was there, and she started crying, and so did I," he says. "I was like, 'Can I do it again?' then Susan came running in, saying, 'Let me see!'"
"We were absolutely not expecting that," Harkema says now. For the 52-year-old PhD, who began studying paralysis as a postdoc at UCLA under her collaborator, Reggie Edgerton, the moment felt precious. "I was in the right place at the right time with the right information," she says. "This is the kind of unique reward that most scientists don't get to enjoy."
Over the course of her research, four men received the therapy, and all four regained some leg movement, an almost unheard-of 100 percent response rate. None so far are able to walk, but simple things like being able to stand and sit up on their own have drastically expanded their worlds. Perhaps most important, as the weeks went on, they experienced an unforeseen benefit: All the men largely regained control over their bladder, bowel, and sexual functions. (On the last, Stephenson cracked to a reporter: "I went from zero to hero!") Also back: the ability to automatically regulate body temperature, a skill many paraplegics' bodies seem to "forget," putting them in danger of hypothermia, overheating, and potentially death.
"I don't have special needs in the Texas heat now," Stephenson says. "I can wear the same boots, same jeans, same shirts I've worn all my life."
"All of that progress is incredibly significant," says Peter Wilderotter, president and CEO of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, which funds spinal cord injury research. "People who are in wheelchairs are more likely to die prematurely than those who aren't, but it's not because they're not walking — it's because of complications from these other systems."
Harkema's next trial will expand the number of test subjects to 36 and include women for the first time. Finding female subjects has been challenging in the past, she says, largely because women suffer fewer spinal cord injuries. But that's unlikely to be a problem now: Since the news broke of her incredible results, more than 5,000 people have applied to be part of the next set of trials. (Olympic gold medalist swimmer Amy Van Dyken-Rouen, paralyzed in an ATV accident in 2014, says she signed up the very first day it opened.) On Harkema's Facebook page, pleas scroll in from all over the globe: "It's been 8 years since my husband's paralysis…" "My uncle is tetraplegic…" "Please reply as soon as possible." She gently directs everyone to apply, but can't help them all — yet.
"With research, we're usually talking about making treatment widely available in 10 years," says Wilderotter. "We think this can be three to five."
Meanwhile, all four of the initial subjects are still being tracked, says Harkema, and "everyone has continued to improve at some level. They haven't plateaued." Kent Stephenson is working for his family's construction company and occasionally off-roading with friends. And that girlfriend? She's now his fiancée; they're deep in wedding plans.
"Sometimes, I even forget I'm in a wheelchair," he says. "I feel like it's just a handful of steps back to where I was before the accident. And I know life will just keep getting better."
This story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.