In the summer of 2005, Peter Grahn, Ph.D., was on the move. He'd recently graduated from high school and was looking forward to college at Minnesota State University Moorhead, where he planned to study biology and play on the university's basketball team. But first came a summer filled with farm work, golf and hanging out with friends. One hot day in August, however, all of that movement came to an end in the shallow waters of Green Lake.
"We were tossing a football around on the lawn, and I decided to run to the end of the dock and jump into the water," Dr. Grahn tells KWLM radio. "Near the end of the dock, I made a careless decision to dive into the water headfirst, not realizing it was only two feet deep." Dr. Grahn hit the bottom of the lake and was unable to move. "I floated face down in the water for what felt like eternity but was actually a matter of a few seconds," he tells the radio station.
His friends rushed to his side and quickly called 911, but the damage had been done. Dr. Grahn had fractured his collarbone, several ribs and a vertebra in his neck, and was eventually diagnosed with quadriplegia. The injury to his spinal cord left Dr. Grahn hospitalized for months, which gave him a great deal of time to think about the new direction his life would take.
"Throughout the whole rehab setting, I had a lot of questions for my doctors," Dr. Grahn recently told Mayo Clinic Radio for a segment that will air this summer. The answers were variations on a theme. When it came to spinal cord injuries like his, doctors had no cure. That was "extremely frustrating" to hear, Dr. Grahn tells Mayo Clinic Radio. But, it was also motivating. The news "sparked a bit of curiosity in my mind about why the spinal cord can't be manipulated to try to regain some function." And that curiosity drew him to Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, where he earned a Ph.D. in the neurobiology of disease.
Today, Dr. Grahn is part of the Neural Engineering Laboratory's Spinal Cord Injury Team at Mayo Clinic. The team is studying whether epidural stimulation combined with intense physical therapy can restore movement in people who have been paralyzed. The approach is showing great promise. As the Star-Tribune and KARE-11 both reported recently, within two weeks of beginning epidural stimulation one patient "was able to control his muscles while lying on his side, make steplike motions, and stand by himself using his arms as support." It's "really exciting work," Dr. Grahn tells Mayo Clinic Radio.
And though you might think the most exciting part would be what it could mean for him down the road, Dr. Grahn says that's not what he's focused on. "Just seeing the gains that it makes in our current patients is really fun," he says.
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