A sailor who won a silver medal at this summer’s London Paralympics describes in a new book how cutting-edge medical technology from the Cleveland Functional Electrical Stimulation Center allowed her to resume an active life after being paralyzed 14 years ago.
Jennifer French’s On My Feet Again: My Journey Out of the Wheelchair Using Neurotechnology builds on a series of blogs she wrote in 2010 and 2011 while preparing for and undergoing surgery and, later, learning to use and live with a second-generation muscle-stimulation implant that enables her to stand and do rudimentary walking.
French, a native of North Royalton, Ohio, was one of the first to receive the technology in 1999. A snowboarding accident left her a paraplegic, but she trained hard with the system and was able to walk down the aisle and stand through her wedding ceremony.
The Functional Electrical Stimulation Center is composed of researchers and doctors at Case Western Reserve University, the Department of Veteran Affairs and MetroHealth Medical Center. Their implants use electric impulses to stimulate muscles severed from control by spinal damage. The newer version has three times more electrodes than the first. This allows French to target specific muscles or muscle groups, gaining better control while using less of her energy.
“She is a most fearless test pilot,” said Hunter Peckham, a professor of biomedical engineering and Distinguished University Professor at Case Western Reserve and the center’s former program director. Peckham wrote the foreword in French’s new book.
“She provides a huge service to us. She pushes and challenges us to improve the technology every step of the way.”
He and French are more than researcher and test pilot. He, too, is an avid sailor.
“It’s phenomenal sailing with her,” he said. “You’re sailing with a world-class sailor.”
French was at the helm and teammate JP Creignou, who is blind, handled the lines as they took silver in the two-person keelboat competition—a 10-race series—at the Paralympics this September. The competition followed the Olympics.
But, more than being a top skipper, “Her passion is to see this technology that has made such an impact on her life become available to all,” Peckham said. “She’ll pour herself into anything that will help us make this technology available more broadly. She’ll explain what it does and how it changed her life to industry and to lay audiences at professional conferences focused on independence.”
Which is what did recently, as she launched On My Feet Again at the Neurotech Leaders Forum in San Francisco. When she originally received the implant, French was featured on Scientific American Frontiers, a PBS show hosted by Alan Alda; in the documentary To Have Courage, and in the book, Shattered Nerves: How Science is Solving Modern Medicine’s Most Perplexing Problems.
She has written and spoken to audiences around the country and is the executive director and founder of Neurotech Network, a nonprofit organization supporting education about, and access to, neurotechnology.
French is donating a portion of each book sold to Case Western Reserve’s Institute for Functional Restoration, casemed.case.edu/IFR/index.cfm, a partner of the FES Center. On My Feet Again is available in print and electronic editions, at Amazon.com.