Evaret Walker teaches himself to walk again after being stricken with a rare spinal cord disease
Sunday, October 8, 2000
By SUSAN DONAHUE of The Associated Press
KALAMA, Wash. -- A subtle movement. A muscle twitches. Toes lift. The leg is crossed. A proud smile covers Evaret Walker's face.
With a rare condition that usually causes paralysis, the 75-year-old Kalama man is using every means possible to teach his body to walk again.
"When they released me from the hospital, they told me I'd never get out of the wheelchair -- at the best," he said. Now, with help, Walker can walk, sometimes with an odd device he invented.
Walker's life was turned upside down on January 4, 1995, when he was hit with transverse myelitis.
"I was as active as anybody ever was," he said. "And within four hours -- paralyzed from the waist down." Most doctors he has seen have had to look up TM to see what it is, Walker said. "I've been told the most bizarre story you ever heard -- it was 'cause I was too healthy."
Walker's Portland acupuncturist, Dr. Gene George Hong, described transverse myelitis as an inflammation that extends across the spinal cord. Although the cause of the syndrome isn't completely known, "it may be due to a viral infection, the body's immune system attacking the spinal cord or a combination of both events," he said.
"The result of this disease is as if the spinal cord has been cut. . . . The patient is usually paralyzed and numb from that level down. Most people do not recover from this disease," said Hong, who also practices internal medicine.
Willing to give anything a try
Evaret Walker isn't one to heed what happens to most people.
To travel to this point in this rehabilitation, he has tried an array of strategies. "Whatever he reads up on that sounds like it'll help him, he does it," said Walker's wife, Joyce.
"I'll give it a try anyway," Walker said. "Well, there's nobody giving me any advice. I'm just out looking. And so far, I've been getting results."
A friend told him about an electrical stimulator, a device that imitates the signal that would usually come from the spinal cord. "You can make that muscle jump. It shoots electricity. You can exercise a muscle that way," he said. He started regular treatments at home with the machine.
"I started getting my muscles out of apathy and then I still couldn't make them work," Walker said. "I had heard about acupuncture back when I was a kid and it stuck in my mind." Walker contacted Hong at the Oregon Acupuncture Center. His weekly visits are paying off, they both said.
Acupuncture has been effective in other diseases that affect the central nervous system including strokes and multiple sclerosis.
"I felt that there were enough similarities between transverse myelitis and these other diseases that it was worth a try," Hong said.
In fact, Hong said, acupuncture is "stimulating some level of regrowth of the structures of the spinal cord and the connections between the spinal cord and his legs. . . . This process is very slow, but I have seen him develop sensation down his back and into his legs. I have also seen him go from a totally paralyzed foot and leg to a movement in those areas."
Walker said, "I've got feelings in my back now. When he puts a needle in it feels like a spike. He's always saying he's sorry when I twitch and I says, 'No that feels good. That means it's alive.' "
Never gave up in therapy
Hong praises Walker for taking the next step. "What Evaret does is to take these very small changes and develop them into improved function by working those newly functioning muscles. This is where the real hard work begins. Evaret keeps himself at the task of strengthening these muscles 8 to 10 hours a day. This is the real reason why he has developed the ability to stand and eventually to walk without assistance," he said.
"Most importantly, he refused to accept the fact that he would never recover."
Walker seizes every opportunity to increase his strength and mobility. "There's still 24 hours in a day; I've got a lot of things I want to do," he said.
Evaret and Joyce are used to keeping busy. The Walkers, who have been married for almost 55 years, sold the Rebel Truck Stop in Kalama two years ago, eight years after they built it.
Before settling in a single location, they spent 20 years in the trucking and fishing industries. From Memorial Day to Labor Day they ran a charter fishing boat out of Ilwaco. Then, "we'd make a mad dash up the river with the boat to Hood River," Walker said. The rest of the year, the Walkers hauled produce to Southern California. "I don't know of anybody who had a life like ours," he said.
Still a challenge to overcome
Down is where Walker refuses to go. When he was hospitalized initially, doctors sent him to a psychiatrist.
"Psychiatrist. I seen that on the door and started laughing," he said. "I told her, 'Don't worry about me. I will be 70 in about five months. I pretty well know as many people in the cemetery. I'm one of the lucky ones."
Hong has noticed Walker's optimism and has asked him to speak at support groups for people with spinal cord injuries. "He is generous with his time," Hong said. "I guess, fundamentally, he does not look at himself as someone who is disabled. It is just another challenge that he will eventually overcome."
A nurse at Sunnyside Hospital told Walker that if he could get his muscles
to start moving before four years was up, then the prognosis for recovery
was strong. "I think I had everything moving a little bit before the four
years was up, so if that's the case I should be 100 percent," he said.
"I don't really need 100 percent because I was so active. I could be better
than most 75-year-olds even at 75 percent."