CLEVELAND -- With the help of researchers and physicians from Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals of Cleveland, Tom Conlan can take a breath and smell. For most of us, that doesn't seem like a big deal, but Conlan is paralyzed from the neck down and cannot breath without help.
For people in his condition, that help comes from a ventilator, a mechanical pump that connects into the throat with a plastic hose. The ventilator fills his lungs with air, bypassing the mouth and nose and depriving him of the sense of smell. And he breathes when the machine forces him to take a breath.
Conlan, 36, of Valley City, Ohio, is now the first person in the world to have a revolutionary electrical stimulation device that activates the phrenic nerve in his diaphragm, the large breathing muscle. The device gets him off the ventilator and allows him to breathe through his nose and mouth. Now a small pleasure that most of us take for granted is a major change for him.
"I can smell everything," he said.
The device was developed from 20 years of research in electrical stimulation of muscles in the laboratory of Thomas Mortimer, professor of biomedical engineering at CWRU. Mortimer and his colleagues also developed computer software to map the nerves in the diaphragm, essential to putting the electrodes in the correct spots.
The device was implanted last March in a minimally invasive surgical procedure led at UHC by Raymond Onders, a CWRU assistant professor of surgery. Working through a laparascope, Onders placed electrodes in Conlan's diaphragm. Conlan's medical team also includes Tom Stellato, CWRU professor of surgery and UHC chief of general surgery, and Anthony DiMarco, CWRU professor of medicine and UHC pulmonologist.
The development of the electrical stimulation device was a team effort by biomedical engineers and physician-researchers at CWRU, the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center, UHC, and MetroHealth Medical Center.