Valeria Amendolia was involved in an accident almost 16 years ago that injured her spinal cord leaving her with tetraplegia, paralysis resulting in partial loss of the use of all of her limbs and torso. Activities that most people take for granted such as eating, walking, dialing a phone and even coughing, became extremely difficult for Valeria. Valeria was vacationing in the United States (US) from her native Switzerland in 2008 and decided to visit the Miami Project, a world renowned spinal cord injury research center at the University of Miami. This decision would be a turning point in her life.

Valeria met with the scientists at the Miami Project, including Edelle Field-Fote, PT, PhD, FAPTA, past Foundation grant recipient and current trustee, and was immediately offered a spot in a research study. Wait lists to participate in these types of research studies can span over years, especially in the groundbreaking projects being done at the Miami Project, so Valeria quickly accepted the spot and returned to the US.

Valeria met the participation criteria for a research protocol during a 4 month period in 2008 and then another in 2010. The first study focused on walking. It looked at the influence of a locomotor training approach on walking speed and distance in those with chronic spinal cord injury. At the start of this study, Valeria spent the majority of her time in a wheelchair and needed assistance in order to stand. After participating in the study for 4 months, she was able to walk unassisted with a walker or cane and no longer needed to constantly use a wheelchair to move around her house.

“I can do more things for myself now,” she enthusiastically said. “I have an amazing service dog that I take outside because I am able to transfer from the chair by myself. I stand up and walk inside the house. I’m still recovering, but life is much better now!”

In addition to her walking improvements, Valeria saw secondary benefits that greatly improved her life. Due to her injury, breathing was difficult and coughing was nearly impossible. Valeria was frightened to sleep when she had a cold, scared that she would choke in her sleep due to her inability to cough. The walking study strengthened Valeria’s upper body muscles enough so that she was able to cough when necessary and she no longer had issues sleeping.

“I used to wake up in the middle of the night feeling like I was suffocating. I had nightmares about choking. After the study, I was able to recruit the muscles in my thoracic zone and I can cough and sleep even when I am sick. I don’t get those nightmares anymore. That is a huge improvement for my quality of life,” she notes.

Valeria partook in her second study at the Miami Project a few years later which focused on hand use. Due to her injury, Valeria had very limited use of her hands, which made doing everyday activities extremely difficult for her.

“The use of your hands gives you freedom,” she exclaims!

This second study examined unimanual or bimanual massed practice training with somatosensory stimulation in those with tetraplegia. Valeria saw increased function in both her right and left hands, which she credits with her participation in the study.

“I can dial a phone number, I can write. I will not be as fast as others, but it is enough,” says Valeria emphatically.

Dr. Field-Fote, who worked with Valeria throughout her time at the Miami Project, was moved by the young woman’s improvements.

“She is someone who has a potential to contribute to the world. By participating in these studies, she made a difference, not only in her own life, but to make that possible for other people as well,” said Field-Fote.

Valeria is amazed with the science happening at the Miami Project and she is incredibly thankful for having been able to share in the advancement of spinal cord injury treatment. She continues to work on her own recovery at a Southern California center specializing in spinal cord injuries (Strides SCI), and building upon her gains made through the Miami Project.

“As long as I can be independent as possible, that is what counts. And I think I can do it because I started with research,” she says solemnly. “Recovering from a spinal cord injury is a lifetime process. But I could not have gotten to where I am today without the research.”

FieldFote lab 3

Valeria works with PT Researcher Edelle Field-Fote, PT, PhD, FAPTA, at the Miami Project.