Science & Medicine: Spinal cord injury and walking again
Selina Morgan holds a doctorate in physical therapy, a board certification in neurological physical therapy, and is an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at UT Health San Antonio.
“And my biggest interest, my entire career of 38 years, has been spinal cord injury,” she said. “I've done a lot of work in stroke and brain injury and vestibular rehab and other things, but spinal cord has always been my passion”
She believes there are thousands of people out there in wheelchairs who don’t have to be.
“The spinal cord is an extension of the brain. And it's very smart. It's always listening, it's healthy, It's just been interrupted with an injury,” she said. “But everything below the injury is healthy and it can generate its own output without the brain. Most locomotion happens at the spinal cord level.”
According to Morgan, if the spinal cord isn’t completely severed, there is hope to walk again.
“So my job and people like me is to have a very standardized way that we all understand, speak the same language, use similar equipment, and find new pathways to do the same job with different neuromuscular tracts within the spinal cord,” she said.
Her proof is in her patients – some with inspiring stories of regained mobility. She described a father of eight who came to her, wheelchair-bound, with such extreme spasticity that she didn’t think she could help him.
“In 18 months he was walking without any devices, no braces, driving himself here and walking in the building,” she said, with a smile.
Morgan has been fundraising for a body weight-supported smart treadmill system that she plans to use in locomotor training for patients with complete or incomplete paralysis. It’s part of her project, Increasing Access: Locomotor Training After Paralysis, which has received a grant from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. She also participates in the foundation’s NeuroRecovery Network.
“Not everyone's going to get up and walk, but we don't know who they are unless we try,” she said. “There's no excuse for us not to practice with the recovery mindset.”
Morgan is on a mission to get everyone who works with people with spinal cord injuries to adopt that recovery mindset and to make sure there are enough outpatient clinics to serve the patients who need them.
“So I'm not ever going to retire. I need to see this through,” she said. “I'm good with that.”
Science & Medicine is a collaboration between TPR and The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, about how scientific discovery in San Antonio advances the way medicine is practiced everywhere.