Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Scientific American FRONTIERS Logo
TV Schedule
Alan Alda
For Educators

Future Shows
Special Features

Body Building
Body on a Bench
  Nerves of Steel
Photo of  Jen Penko and her new husband
  Thanks to FES, Jen Penko was able to leave her wheelchair behind on her wedding day.

Paralysis results from impaired or severed communication between the brain and the body. But just because the brain can't control the body, doesn't mean the body is no longer capable of taking direction. This is the concept behind FES, or Functional Electrical Stimulation, in which electrodes implanted in the body stimulate the muscles, allowing some degree of movement.

In "Nerves of Steel," Alan revisits Dr. Byron Marsolais and his colleagues at the Cleveland VA Hospital and the Cleveland Metro Health Center. Twenty years ago, Marsolais pioneered the first experimental FES system. Now growing numbers of patients are benefitting from the program. Alan catches up with veteran volunteer experimental subject Jim Jatich, who remains wheelchair bound but uses FES to open and close his once-paralyzed hands. Alan also meets Jen Penko, who uses an implanted FES system called "standing transfer." Standing is a major accomplishment for Jen, paralyzed in a 1997 snowboarding accident. Using the system, she can get out of her chair to reach objects on a high shelf, or get into a car or onto a sofa. At the same time she's putting weight on her leg muscles and bones, preventing atrophy and osteoporosis. And of course, with FES she can talk with people like Alan eye to eye.

Photo of Alan and Jim Jatich  
Alan gets a demonstration of FES in action from long-time user Jim Jatich.  

Most recently, Jen was able to use her FES system to walk down the aisle on her wedding day. Though she had to rely on the support of a walker, that mattered little to Jen, who writes, "For that time, I wasn't disabled. All the negative sides of disability disappeared, to be replaced with the gifts of abilities." Jim Jatich echoes her sentiment, "You know it just changes people's lives. And that's the kick I get out of it, to see how people change."

For more on this topic, see the web feature:
Standing Tall
Artificial Alan

return to show page




How to Make a NoseBody on a BenchSearch for the Perfect HeartNerves of Steel Resources Teaching guide Science hotline video trailer Contact Search Homepage