Dennis decides his own fate

June 28, 2012

The term ‘neuroscience research’ conjures up images of very serious people in lab coats and goggles, beakers and test tubes, and maybe a rat maze or two, in a cold, white laboratory. This may be a reality in some stages of research, but in our lab, you’ll find an entirely different atmosphere, especially with the inclusion of the final and most important factor: the human subject.

Having participated in two studies, I was anxious to discuss someone else’s experience and Dennis Geyer, a genial Harley enthusiast who had two fingers sawed off and reattached, did not disappoint. In 2007, a car ran Dennis off the road. He landed on his head and suffered a contusion of the C6 (cervical) vertebrae. The injury required surgically implanted rods and pins to re-elongate his spine.

His three months as an inpatient at Helen Hayes Hospital proved successful, due in no small part to his determination in his goal to walk, believing “demeanor and attitude can make or break a person in their ability to recover.” He refused to wear braces toward the latter part of his stay here, instead setting short and long-term goals for himself, like not using any assistive devices. In spite of a pre-existing herniated disc at the L3 (lumbar) level where bone rubbed against bone accompanied by debilitating pain (attempts to alleviate this pain included cortisone shots and burn sheathing at the nerve site), he continued physical therapy until insurance stopped covering it in 2010.

PT stopped, but Dennis didn’t. When I asked him how he felt about PT sessions coming to an end, he told me he couldn’t, “dwell on the past because the past isn’t going to take care of the future.” He may have still been “walking like a drunken sailor” but was more than ready to try new things.

The transition from hospital to home, as many who’ve experienced the “false sense of indestructibility” as an inpatient can attest to, proved difficult. Dennis pressed on and continued his exercise, starting with short walks in his driveway and eventually making it the half-mile to the volunteer firehouse where he would work out and walk home afterwards. If he couldn’t walk up the stairs, he’d sit and pull himself up. Dennis explained that it’s the finer things people take for granted, like the ease of getting dressed. I was pleased to find out he wasn’t the only person who threw things out of aggravation. He had a daughter and a girlfriend present at the time, so it wasn’t the lack of aid that was frustrating; it was the lack of independence.

In 2008, his doctor told him about the reflex study Dr. Aiko Thompson was conducting in the neurological research lab at HHH. He suffered from spasticity and although was promised nothing in the way of improvement as a participant, even signing a consent that stated such, saying “I had no idea what I was getting into,” but he trusted in the “supportive environment I had experienced as an inpatient at Helen Hayes.” He reasoned, “It couldn’t hurt” and “imagined some kind of benefit.”

And benefit he received, reporting a better ability to clear his toe, as he previously stumbled and dragged walking on rugs, normalized gait, and better balance. He continued with the TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) study to improve ankle flexion. Dennis is currently helping Aiko discover if regular use of a treadmill is beneficial, the first time she’s done this in the lab.

Participation was not without its share of frustration. The reflex study requires an intense amount of concentration wherein the participant must control his or her own reflex response based on computer feedback, and we laughed over the mutual feeling of “being driven crazy” that we “couldn’t be told what to do.” Just when he thought he “had it figured out, it would change.” He was harder on himself than anyone else, claiming he got more upset than Aiko when he received negative results. Dennis likened his first experience with TMS to a “bolt of lightening through the head.” He was scared in the beginning, but quickly acclimated.

Physical and occupational therapy are responsible for many significant strides, but he believes he benefits more from research at this point. To Dennis, it’s a culmination of all different types of therapies that lead to recovery, as “anything you can receive positive input from, mentally or physically, is tied into rehabilitation, regardless if it’s research or therapy in as long as you’re willing to participate and push boundaries.”

What ultimately emerged from my conversation with Dennis is that he believes research works best in combination with an individual’s discipline. Even when he’s lying down watching TV, he’s doing something. Which isn’t to say the guy’s not human, as he admitted to slacking and sometimes works out only once a week instead of three. Dennis’ experience speaks for itself, I’m just relaying his easygoing yet willful personality (I know of no other person who gave up seemingly crucial medications by sheer determination) through his straightforward, memorable sayings. Here’s one more for the record: “You’re going to get as good as you’re going to get. It’s up to you.”

Enjoy good health,

Lauren Verlizzo