Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Experimental Drug Lets Man Walk Again

The nights were the worst for John Bannon, gripped by fear of what his spinal cord injury might mean.

"Every night lying in bed you'd think, 'God, am I ever going to be able to do any of this stuff?' " Bannon said.

High on his list was being able to walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding, a tall order for someone told he'd never walk again.

But on May 27, the 50-year-old Londoner did just that. And he had the first dance with his daughter at the reception.

"When it was done, I thought, 'Wow, I owe a lot.' It was unbelievable."

He credits the "awesome" care he's received at Parkwood Hospital in London, and an experimental drug.

Bannon clearly remembers the pool party following his daughter's baseball tournament in June 1992.

He was standing at the edge of the pool when somebody gave him a nudge. He crashed to the bottom of the pool, hitting the back of his head on the bottom. In an instant, he was a quadriplegic.

"The only thing I could move at that time was my mouth. As I was coming up, everything just went dead," he said.

People jumped in to help and Bannon said he's grateful the assistant coach, a former ambulance driver, kept people from hauling him out of the water and possibly worsening his injury before paramedics arrived.

He was conscious for the ambulance ride to hospital, but little else. With his lungs collapsed, his family was told he might not survive the night.

Transferred to University Hospital in London, he couldn't breathe on his own. Staff there told him he wouldn't walk again, he said.

His first glimmer of hope came when a doctor from Parkwood came to see him and tested his response with pinpricks. When she tested his toes, he could feel the sensation.

His injury had damaged his spinal cord, but some messages from his brain to his nerves were still getting through.

"She looked at my brother who was there and told him to get me a pair of top running shoes because she was going to get me up on my feet again. It made my day," Bannon said.

Moved to Parkwood, Bannon faced months of physical therapy, learning even to breathe on his own again.
Then he was able to wiggle his toes. Slowly, he was able to do more and more.

"Eventually, they got me on my feet and I could walk a little bit," he said.

He went home.

Though he had some use of his legs, he still suffered spasms and uncontrollable shaking that would knock him down.

When doctors at Parkwood called and said he qualified for an experimental drug program that might help, Bannon welcomed the opportunity.

"I'll try anything," he said.

The drug, Fampridine, was designed to allow signals from the brain to cross injured areas in the spinal cord. Bannon said the drug reduces the muscle spasms, giving him more confidence to stand and walk. It also increases his stamina.

"It is not a cure, but it repairs some of the damaged area in my spinal cord temporarily, so the messages get down to where they need to go," he said.

Bannon now does peer counselling at Parkwood and helps with fundraising for the hospital. He wants to see the lives of other patients improve and is excited by the opening of the new Aging, Rehabilitation and Geriatric Care Research Centre.

"I am pretty well set. I feel very fortunate the way I am. I can stand, I can walk, I can drive," he said.

"There are people out there who could really use those things."

By JOHN MINER