‘Bionic’ treatment gives Leanne O’Neill the courage to bar her legs for the first time in decades

Leanne O’Neill wears shorts for the first time since a horrific car crash left her paralyzed from waist to toe 37 years ago.

Ms O’Neill damaged her spinal cord when her car hit newly laid gravel and overturned on a rural road in central Queensland.

The accident left her without motor function below her navel, but Ms O’Neill, who was 20 at the time, lost more than the use of her legs.

“It’s not just that you can’t walk. It’s your self-esteem, your self-confidence,” she said.

“Call it vanity, or whatever, but it’s hard when you have perfectly normal legs and it doesn’t take long for them to wither when you’re bedridden.”

Since the accident, she has worn thick jeans and choked in the hot summers of Rockhampton.

Hope on the horizon

However, a new bionic treatment could help build muscle and atrophy would be a thing of the past.

Ms. O’Neill is undergoing electrical stimulation mobility treatment to strengthen her muscles.

Dr Vanesa Bochkezanian (left) says her goal is to have the bionic treatment available in the homes of people like Leanne.(

ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler

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“I don’t think you ever really accept [the loss]. You just learn to live with it and you can have a really great life, but something like that is a gift, ”she said.

Ms O’Neill is part of a small team led by Vanesa Bochkezanian, innovator and lecturer in neurological physiotherapy at Central Queensland University in Rockhampton.

Dr Bochkezanian’s Electrical Stimulation Treatment – or E-Stim – is a finalist in the upcoming Bionics Challenge 2021, a Queensland-led competition with national and national awards.

“We have electrical signals that go through the brain, through the spine, and then activate the muscle,” said Dr. Bochkezanian.

This treatment uses electrical stimulation to deliver these signals to a person’s muscles.

While not as effective as the body’s usual connections between the brain and the spine, muscles tire quickly, which is why Dr Bochkezanian is working on specific protocols that are safe and effective.

Close up of threads with gray pads placed on a woman's legs to stimulate atrophied muscles
While the technology has long been used in clinical practice, Dr Bochkezanian is working on protocols to stimulate muscles in people with spinal cord injuries.(

ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler

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“If the muscle gets tired too quickly, we won’t get the results we want,” she said.

Once she deciphered the correct protocols, Dr Bochkezanian said her goal was to make the technology accessible in the home.

“I think it’s going to be essential, especially for people living with a physical disability [who are] living in regional and remote areas, to have access to anything that could really improve the physical results on their quality of life. “

Dr Bochkezanian said that at present there were very few resources that someone like Ms O’Neill could access.

Added complications

There are thousands of Australians like Ms O’Neill who are living with a spinal cord injury and the impacts extend beyond their inability to walk.

“It’s not just your legs that aren’t working,” Ms. O’Neill said.

“That’s all that goes with it – you lose your bladder and your bowel function.”

And poor circulation can be a problem.

A woman's right leg covered with electrodes is lifted by an exercise machine.
Building muscle and improving circulation helps prevent pressure sores, which can take months to heal.(

ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler

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Because of this, pressure ulcers are a significant risk, and Ms O’Neill has spent months at a time lying in the hospital, waiting for them to heal.

When she gave birth to one of her sons, Ms O’Neill developed pressure sores so severe that she had to abandon her baby and travel to Brisbane for treatment.

“[This treatment] gives me hope, ”Ms. O’Neill said.

“Back then, when they say you’ll never walk again, that’s it. It’s final.

“If they could tell you, ‘You’re not going to walk anymore. There are things you can do to become a stronger person so that you can improve yourself. [your] quality of life’.”

A smiling woman with a blonde bob, wearing a navy blue Central Queensland University polo shirt with a field in the background
Leanne O’Neill says that while she will never work, the new treatment improves her quality of life and gives her hope.(

ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler

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Ms O’Neill and Dr Bochkezanian hope to win a prize of $ 50,000 at the Bionics Challenge – hosted by Bionics Queensland – to take E-Stim to the next level.

Big impact

Bionics Queensland CEO Dr Robyn Stokes said electronic stimulation therapy is a growing area of ​​bionics to help people living with a spinal cord injury.

Spending extended periods in a wheelchair could also lead to other functional issues, such as incontinence, which were big issues to deal with, Dr Stokes said.

A middle aged woman with cropped short blonde hair, dark rimmed glasses and an animal print scarf on a white top smiles
Bionics Queensland CEO Dr Robyn Stokes said people are using innovations to change their daily lives.(

Provided: Bionics Queensland

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“It is particularly difficult for young people who adapt massively to life with this handicap.

“So to have a stimulation technique like E-Stim therapy that Vanesa [Bochkezanian] and his team work at CQU, that stuff can really change your life. “

Bionic Queensland is launching the challenge, now in its second year, and the program supports teams working on life-changing bionic implants, devices and treatments to help those affected by road traffic crashes, disability, chronic illness or health problems.

“I’ve been involved for a few years now, and my motivation is that I can see this is going to transform lives,” said Dr Stokes.

The winners of the Bionic Challenge will be announced on August 28.


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