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Learning to walk again

By Allyson Bird
Office of Development and Alumni Affairs
Carl Klele receiving therapy at MUSC
Carl Klele receiving therapy at MUSC.

Carl Klele’s change came gradually – with a few stumbles, then dragging his left foot and finally the falls.

When he hit his head inside the boat he and his wife enjoyed taking to Florida in the winters, he made two decisions: To sell the beloved boat, and to address the spinal cord injury taking over more and more of his life.

Klele is a retired intelligence officer who wound up with this impairment after his helicopter crashed in a rice paddy during the Vietnam War. He spent his entire career in high-risk, high-intensity situations and even came out of retirement after Sept. 11, 2001, to work a little more. But the deteriorating control of his own body over the years proved tougher to handle for the Mount Pleasant resident. 

“I’m 77 years old, and I’ve seen a lot of this world,” Klele said. “But I get emotional about this.”

Klele’s wife, a nurse at the Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center, learned from a psychiatrist about a new lab at the MUSC College of Health Professions called the Center for Rehabilitation Research in Neurological Conditions.

A place with such a complicated name taught Klele something very simple: how to walk confidently again.

The space, jointly operated by MUSC and the VA hospital, opened in May 2011. Klele became one of the first participants toward the end of the year.

He began his rehabilitation work at the Locomotor Energetics Assessment Lab, which analyzed how well he walked and why. He stepped onto a treadmill with force plates, and he wore tiny LED lights, while 12 cameras detected his every move.

Occupational Therapist and Assistant Professor Michelle Woodbury said that system monitored Klele’s joints with each step he took. The same technology also creates video game characters and movie special effects.

Klele at home after completing his rehabilitation program at MUSC.

In January Klele began his rehabilitation program at the Locomotor Rehabilitation Laboratory upstairs in the College of Health Professions. He spent his time there performing tasks that unimpaired people don’t think about: stretching, balancing, jumping.

Klele could manage 1.5 miles per hour on the treadmill – unsteadily.

He used a rock-climbing harness in an unweighting system to push farther than he thought he could. That’s what makes the Center for Rehabilitation Research in Neurological Conditions so special, according to Physical Therapist and Assistant Professor Mark Bowden.

“People in rehabilitation don’t push people with neurological conditions as hard as they can be pushed, because of the risk associated,” Bowden said. “But they need some intensity to improve.”

Research Physical Therapist Aaron Embry put it this way: “We could push him to the limits where he could fail safely.”

Students, faculty and even congressional staffers occasionally came by to observe. The rehabilitation program operated with money from the South Carolina Spinal Cord Injury Research Fund, so stakeholders stopped by to see the cash – and Klele – at work.

“I was the guinea pig,” Klele said.  

His program ended in June. He now walks on the treadmill for 25 minutes a day, three days a week. He nearly doubled his speed to 2.7 miles per hour.

“Today, I’ve got muscle mass,” he said. He and his wife traveled to San Francisco after his program ended and strolled the city together every day.

“I bet you I didn’t stumble but two or three times, and we did a lot of walking,” Klele said. “One does not know how it feels to fear walking. I don’t have that fear anymore.”