C-Brace Helps Mother Return to an Active Life

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By Betta Ferrendelli

Hannah Eldridge had scoliosis as a child, which caused numbness and shooting pains in her back and legs. In November 2014, after years of constant discomfort, a 23-year-old Eldridge was treated with an epidural to help with the pain and numbness, but the procedure did not go well.

When Eldridge woke, she says she was unable to move her legs or control her bladder. She says she wasn't initially worried. "I didn't think much of it because I had a similar feeling after I had given birth to my son," says Eldridge.

When it came time to be released, she still had no movement in her legs so her father carried her out of the hospital. Two weeks after the procedure, still unable to move her legs or control her bladder, she returned to the hospital, where she learned that because of the curve in her spine, the needle missed its target, Eldridge says.

Her physicians, however, told her not to worry, that she would get better. In December of that year, she had a second procedure to relieve pressure on her swollen spinal cord. Afterward, though she finally had feeling in her left leg, the paralysis remained in her right leg, Eldridge says.

Near the end of January 2015, when Eldridge's condition still hadn't improved, she returned to the hospital. Her physicians told her she would never walk again. "They told me the best thing I could hope for was to cut my right leg off, get a [prosthetic] limb, and then I'd be back on my feet in no time," says Eldridge who had also just learned she was pregnant with her daughter.

Eldridge says she left her appointment feeling shocked, defeated, and scared. "My first thought was ‘how am I ever going to raise a newborn sitting in a wheelchair?' I felt like my life was over," she says. "The wheelchair was the only way I was going to be able to get around and raise my family."

Country Living

Eldridge, who lives in rural Northern Virginia, says, "Living in the country is hard enough, and without good mobility you're pretty much stuck." Country life has its own trials without having to address physical challenges as well. In addition, when Eldridge's husband is away for work, she is home alone to care for their two small children.

Eldridge started with only a wheelchair for mobility, but she also tried many other devices, including KAFOs and other braces for her ankle and knee that would allow her to stand and be more mobile. "None of them worked well enough to allow me to get around without crutches and a wheelchair," she says. "I was using three to four devices just to get around and do simple daily tasks."

Eldridge says she discovered quickly that a wheelchair would not be a satisfactory long-term solution. As a patient, Eldridge says she didn't know what her options were. "I assumed that the doctors would know how to help me and if they knew, they would help me find a better solution." But since she was receiving little to no help from her physicians, she turned to the internet to do her own medical research. "Time was not healing this, and I didn't want to spend the rest of my life unable to get around," she says.

A New Brace, A New Day

Duke University Hospital, Durham, North Carolina, eventually connected Eldridge with physical therapy. Since her ankle kept rolling to the side, sliding underneath her wheelchair during transfers and hindering her effort to get sufficient ankle support, one of her physical therapists encouraged Eldridge to contact Virginia Prosthetics & Orthotics, headquartered in Roanoke, Virginia.

Eldridge began working with her first orthotist at Virginia Prosthetics & Orthotics in late 2016. They tried multiple devices, but each one caused more problems for her than it helped.

Trevor Johnson, CPO, joined Virginia Prosthetics & Orthotics' Christiansburg office in 2013. When Johnson first started working with Eldridge in 2017, she was using a custom plastic KAFO with a bail lock knee and solid ankle. Johnson says he told Eldridge about a microprocessor-controlled orthosis he thought might work for her. "I didn't want to get her hopes up too high for various reasons, but we both agreed it was something we should try because if it did work for her, it could really improve her life," says Johnson.

Johnson introduced Eldridge to the C-Brace, Ottobock, Duderstadt, Germany, with microprocessor-sensor technology.

"Trevor had heard about the C-Brace and thought it would be a perfect fit for me, not only to keep me safe but also to help me reach my ultimate goal of walking again," Eldridge says.

The first C-Brace she tried did not work for her as well as she had hoped. "The first one was amazing and different than anything I've tried, but it was large and bulky, and due to the weight, I couldn't use it. To be honest, I was crushed that the first time I tried to use it I couldn't."

Eventually, Eldridge increased the strength in her legs and hip flexors to be able to trial the first version of the C-Brace.

When a new version of the C-Brace was introduced in 2018 that was lighter, slimmer, easier to don, and fit better in Eldridge's shoe, "That's when my life changed, and I felt like I was finally going to get somewhere," she says.

The changes in the joint unit make it more intuitive and the stance feature is great as well, Johnson adds. The biggest improvement with the latest version of the C-Brace for Eldridge is the size, he says. "The original was great, but pretty bulky. She told me that she felt like she could do some physical things like ride a bike, but the bulk of the [previous] brace made it too hard to get on and off."

The joint unit on the new version is also different as far as the mechanism is concerned. "It operates like a C-Leg 4, no longer depending on the strut/foot sensors," says Johnson, who believes the device is more intuitive and better at knowing how his patient is trying to move. "For example, I've seen Hannah walk backward, actually, I've seen her moonwalk, and the older unit wouldn't have allowed for that." 

Eldridge says she likes that the new C-Brace comes with an app, which allows her to see the battery life and adjust some settings on her own. "It's also much smoother like your normal limb would be, and it doesn't look as stiff as the original."

Eldridge estimates she used the wheelchair for nearly two years before receiving the first C-Brace. She says she would wake up in the morning and feel "handicapped." Now, she uses her wheelchair to get from her bed to where the C-Brace's battery charges. When she dons the device and starts to walk, "I don't feel that way anymore," she says. "I feel free to do all the things I did before."

The Small Things

Before getting the C-Brace, Eldridge had to depend on her family to help her. "I used to have to have someone [drive] me to the grocery store to do my shopping," she says. "I could do nothing, and I felt horrible about it." Now she is able to take control of her life again without having to ask others for help. "I have a lot of good people around here who are willing to help," she says. "But it is good that I don't have to depend on them."

She says she appreciates the small things. "I often think about how grateful I am for the little things now," she says. "You're thankful for food, but you're not grateful that you can get down on your knees to pick up a sock. I try not only to convey to my children you need to be thankful for the small things but explain to everyone the things we need to be grateful for because sometimes you just don't think about it."

Betta Ferrendelli can be contacted at betta@opedge.com.