Level of injury: T2
Cause: Tumor removed from spine as infant
Age at onset: 8 months

Catherine Martin accepted the news that her eight-month-old daughter Isabel had a spinal tumor. She accepted that the procedure to remove it would take nine terrifying hours. She accepted the fact that after the traumatic surgery, Issy had very little movement in her tiny legs. She even accepted it when doctors told her over and over that Issy would never have any functional recovery

“For many years,” Catherine says, “we did what we were told, which was not to do that much and just get on with it. They hammered it into us that we should not expect any recovery rather, expect an array of secondary complications.

But one day, Catherine got fed up with accepting what she was told.

“We went to a specialist for a routine checkup and they said Issy needed surgery on her contractures. I said, ‘That seems drastic, isn’t there something else we can do?’ And the doctor looked at me, right over Issy’s head, and said ‘the only thing that will help those muscles is to get in there and cut them with a knife.’”

It was the catalyst the Martin family needed to take Isabel’s future out of the wheelchair and into their own hands. “Issy wanted us to be proactive. In her dreams, she’s walking. She wanted us to be doing something to help her get there. This was the trigger.”

Catherine began searching for recovery-based programs. Her hope faced plenty of adversity. “Our pediatrician knelt in front of Issy and said, ‘For a long time, I’ve worked with children in wheelchairs. And none of them were ever able to walk. You’re not going to walk, Issy.’”

Insensitive and unthinking remarks sometimes have the opposite effect. As Catherine puts it, “it pisses us off, that they are so short sighted, and cannot see the limitations they impose on her potential, But it challenges Issy to prove her doctors wrong.”

And she has.

Recommended by a physician, the RT300 FES system has been an integral part of Isabel’s routine since May of 2009. Now 11 years old, Isabel has to sit for long periods of time at school. “Her legs get tight so we pop her on the RT300 and it softens them. It’s amazing how it stretches them out. She’s seen remarkable changes,” her mother says. Catherine also notes that the RT300 has significantly improved her daughter’s bladder and bowel control.

The benefits aren’t just physical. “Her mental outlook is always better after. She feels good when she’s done some exercise. She’s in harmony when her whole body is conditioned.”

Isabel also uses the RT300 at the innovative Project Walk facility in California. In September of 2009, the Martin family first took Issy on the long trip from their native Australia to the United States to participate in Project Walk’s intensive recovery program for people with spinal cord injuries. “And now,” her mother says proudly, “she can crawl.”

“When she first did the crawling exercise, she needed someone on each leg to move it along. Now she can crawl 30 paces. It’s exhausting—but she can do it, she can bring each leg through.”

Isabel is also able to put weight on her legs, which she’d never managed before. It’s a small improvement with huge repercussions as it may eventually help her dress and change herself. Her legs have also filled out and appear more in proportion to the rest of her body. Other benefits Isabel is experiencing as she works with the RT300 is a profound reduction in muscle spasms, and improved circulation. “Her whole body is working better,” says Catherine. She’s firm in her belief that the RT300 has radically helped her daughter. “Every person who has a spinal cord injury and wants to optimize their physical well-being should be issued a RT300 at home,” she insists.

Isabel’s routine on the RT300 includes 30-to-50-minute sessions three times per week. Her mother loves the convenience of having the RT300 at home and being able to move it around the house. “Issy usually plays her Nintendo while she uses her RT300 or watches the telly. If she’s allowed to watch telly that day!”

It’s a typical motherly comment about a little girl who wants to be typical too. “Issy is socially isolated. Kids run off and do their own thing and they don’t always stop and think about the little girl in the wheelchair. She just hates it. She’s a really social, bright, witty little kid and one of her biggest wishes is to walk and have lots of friends.”

Isabel also dreams of being a movie director. “She loves the world of fantasy,” her mother says. “She’d love to be part of creating that magical place. I think she feels that if she’s a director, she won’t be limited by her wheelchair.”

Maybe not. But maybe by then, she won’t be in one. 

To read more about Isabel’s story, visit the Martin family’s foundation at www.wishtowalk.org. Wish to Walk raises money for Isabel’s treatment. The Australian charity also works to promote awareness of recovery programs for people with spinal cord injuries.

Catherine Martin, mother of Isabel Martin.