Columbus, OH— Joe and I walked into a packed house– signs on the door read ‘full capacity’ and the only spots left were standing room in the back left corner. Shadowbox live is usually a venue reserved for artistic performances (improv, theater, etc.). But last week was all about Ian Burkhart– the ‘$5 million dollar man’.

Ian is a Columbus native who was paralyzed in a diving accident six years ago. But losing mobility hasn’t stopped him from moving forward. He has spent the last three years working as a research partner with Ohio State Wexner Medical Center and Battelle testing a breakthrough neural bypass system for those with spinal cord injuries.

The event was hosted by Columbus Science Pub, a monthly meetup of science enthusiasts who love diving deep into new research and technology. I emailed Joe– a friend and account executive at GSW the day before to see if he wanted to come with me. ‘Absolutely’ he said, without really knowing what to expect.

Working at GSW, we have a culture of Speaking People– diving into the true essence of what healthcare is really about and portraying it in simple, meaningful communications. While a great organizing principle for the agency, it’s even more impactful when you internalize it beyond your role and use it as a lens to view the world.

“There was one thing Ian said that really stuck with me: “It’s like a chess match with life planning out my day.” Listening to his story, I began to understand the challenges a quadriplegic faces every day– things I take for granted like brushing my teeth or putting on a pair of pants.” –Joe Vancena, GSW

Ian’s progress is the first demonstration that a human with a quadriplegia can regain volitional, functional control of his own limbs. This improvement in function is meaningful in reducing the burden of care for patients. Dr. Marcia Bockbrader, neurorehabilitation physiatrist and neuroscience researcher at Ohio State explained the economics of enabling self-reliance in those with injuries that have left them paralyzed or partially paralyzed.

“Many people consider the future application of this technology extremely costly on a per patient basis. But let’s stop and ask ourselves: How expensive is it to not give patients like Ian the ability to take care of themselves?” –Dr. Marcia Bockbrader M.D. Ph.D., The Ohio State University

Lifetime costs of spinal cord injuries are estimated between $1 and 4.7 million depending of the age of the patient and severity of the injury. A significant cost is associated with daily patient support for routine life activities (grooming, preparing food, transportation, etc.). Dr. Bockbrader believes that creating technology that increases independence amongst this patient population not only increases their quality of life, but also lessens the financial burden of daily support.

Ian’s nickname as the ‘$5 million dollar man’ is in part due to the value of technology he uses on a day-to-day basis. It’s also why the experiments are run with styrofoam cups, plastic forks and no liquid. Right now the early technology is expensive… and fragile.

Don’t Forget About the Data

Presenting along with Ian and Dr. Bockbrader was David Friedenberg, a Battelle scientist with expertise in statistics and machine learning methods in neuroscience. His role is no easy task trying to make sense of Ian’s thoughts and transform those into electrical signals that activate muscles in Ian’s arm to control his hand movements.

“My goal is to understand Ian’s brain patterns. The reader implanted in his head sends 300,000 signals a second. For the system to work and feel real, it needs to have less than 1/10 of a second of latency.” –David Friedenberg Ph.D., Battelle

The challenge is brains are not like machines neurons are constantly changing and rewiring themselves. Ian’s mood, his previous thoughts and even the time of day affects the signals coming from his brain. Friedenberg has to develop complex algorithms to make sense of this data so Ian can control the device that moves his hand.

Enabling Day-to-Day Wins

The most inspirational part of this talk was hope– Ian’s aspiration, drive and determination to live a normal life. Sometimes as amazing as a medical technology or treatment is, it can often distract us from what’s really important. We can lose sight of the lives of the patients receiving it– their morning routine, relationships with friends or involvement in their community.

“As the presentation ended, I started reflecting on our diabetes patients and realized that their daily challenges, although different, also exist. It became clear that by empathizing with our type-2 consumers and understanding the seemingly mundane obsticles in their life, we could open up a new world of ‘treatment options’– products and services that complement prescription treatment and help bring their lives back to ‘normal’.” –Joe Vancena, GSW

Ian’s story is a reminder of our duty to understand the impact healthcare has on patient’s day-to-day, and a call to arms on making sure we work tirelessly to improve these experiences.

About the Author:

Zach Friedman