08:14 AM

World Record-Holding Para Athlete Looks to MetroHealth for Groundbreaking Research

Adam Gorlitsky 2

Adam Gorlitsky has been defying limitations since the day he was paralyzed in a car accident 17 years ago.

The Charleston, S.C., resident holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest marathon completed in a robotic walking device. This weekend, he’ll try to break that record at the Cleveland Marathon.

He chose this race because Cleveland is home to MetroHealth Rehabilitation Institute, where groundbreaking research promises the life-changing advances he believes will help him and others push past the bounds of paralysis. In fact, he learned about the marathon when he was visiting MetroHealth as a participant in a clinical trial conducted by Dennis Bourbeau, PhD, Staff Scientist in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Assistant Professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine.

“This is about highlighting all of the great research they are doing at MetroHealth,” said Gorlitsky, who is the founder I GOT LEGS, a nonprofit devoted to helping athletes with life-limiting injuries maintain an active lifestyle. “It’s an incredible team. I am grateful for everything they are doing.”

The MetroHealth Rehabilitation Institute and the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) at MetroHealth and Case Western Reserve University ranks No. 1 in the nation in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding among PM&R departments in U.S. medical schools. The Institute is world-renowned for its work to restore function, societal participation and quality of life for people with significant neurological and musculoskeletal impairments and functional limitations. For Gorlitsky and others who live with paralysis of the lower portion of their bodies, those limitations include the inability to move their bowels and empty their bladders without help.

Institute researchers like Dr. Bourbeau are doing pioneering research to address these challenges by improving upon and developing new applications for sophisticated functional electrical stimulation (FES) technology. FES uses tiny, implantable devices to deliver low-level electrical pulses to the central or peripheral nervous systems to work in place of the damaged neurons of patients with paralysis. These pulses can activate elements of the nervous system to perform functions that otherwise would be impossible, including regaining bladder control and, for men, restoring the ability to obtain an erection.

“It is an honor to work with people like Adam and to know that the research we are doing has the potential to help them and future generations of individuals with paralysis to regain what they have lost,” Dr. Bourbeau said. “As researchers, we are grateful to all of the study participants in our clinical trials for their contributions to making life better for others.”

Gorlitsky’s admiration for MetroHealth goes back to the early years of his paralysis. After developing a severe kidney infection as the result of his spasming bladder, his urologist at a different hospital suggested a risky surgery that offered an uncertain outcome. So Gorlitsky’s mother set out to find alternatives. Her search brought them to MetroHealth, where his FES device was implanted.

“It completely changed my life,” said Gorlitsky, explaining that before he had the FES device, he had to empty his bladder manually using a catheter in a time-consuming process that made him prone to UTIs and incontinence. With his FES device, he is able to empty his bladder in three to five minutes.

That device is part of the clinical trial Gorlitsky participated in with Dr. Bourbeau a few months ago. The ongoing study seeks to determine whether the participant’s existing implanted device is more effective when different frequencies are applied using an external stimulator controller. The aim is to determine if the FES device could help to empty the bladder more quickly and without a catheter if the frequency of the electrical stimulation were increased.

As a para athlete, Gorlitsky is excited about the possibility. He has to stop regularly throughout every marathon to take bathroom breaks, so an advancement like this would allow him to finish his races faster. But spending less time in the bathroom would be a significant change even for those who aren’t trying to break world records.

“The research happening at MetroHealth is absolutely groundbreaking; it’s reversing elements of paralysis,” Gorlitsky said. “I believe these are the next steps toward ultimately curing paralysis.”

Dr. Bourbeau’s study, and other research aimed at bladder function for people with paralysis, is still recruiting subjects. For more information about how to participate in this study or research related to paralysis, contact Senior Research Coordinator Kimberly Schach at 216-778-7992 or kschach@metrohealth.org.