Just one step at a time Essex man has to fly before he can walk

April 09, 1992|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

For Joseph Ensey, the hardest thing about being paralyzed is not being able to run.

"I just always enjoyed running and seeing nature," said Mr. Ensey, a former cross country and track star at North Harford High School.

But now he cannot even walk. Mr. Ensey, 30, of Essex, has been confined to a wheelchair with a bullet lodged near his spine since he was shot in the back during a robbery last December.

He has been told that it is best to accept his condition and get on with his life. But his dream is to walk again. "I could stay in the wheelchair for the rest of my life. No, no, that's not me," he said.

There is a machine that may be able to help him: the Functional Electrical Stimulation walking system, developed by researchers Jerrold Petrofsky and Janni Smith. He learned about it from a book he picked up in a hospital library. "I do my own research on my body, because it's my body," he said.

The machine works by sending electrical impulses through electrodes taped to the limb, which stimulate the nerves and cause the leg muscle to move.

Mr. Ensey's insurance will pay for the expensive system, but he must go to Irvine, Calif., to be fitted with the brace and for therapy associated with the system. He is now trying to raise enough money to pay for plane fare to California and living expenses for the six months he will have to stay there.

Mr. Ensey is living on a weekly disability check of $160.

After his story aired on a local television station, USAir offered to pay his air fare to California for a six-day diagnostic exam later this month. Motel 6 has offered free accommodations during this first trip. After the exam, the clinic will tell him whether he can be fitted with the walking system, and then he would go for the six-month therapy.

He is determined that, with the help of others, he will be able to go.

"I'm just not going to lose a chance to try it," he said.

Mr. Ensey was assaulted last Dec. 28. He was going to the apartment of a friend in northeast Baltimore, a mechanic who he hoped could help repair his girlfriend's car. He had just walked through the main door of the complex when a man "grabbed me and put a gun to my head . . . and said, 'Give me all the money you have or I'll blow your head off.' "

"When he looked down, I knocked the gun out of his hand and I ran out," Mr. Ensey said. The gunman picked up his .22-caliber semiautomatic and sprayed about 25 rounds at Mr. Ensey. One hit him in the back, nicked a vertebra and came to rest to the right of his spine.

Mr. Ensey realized almost immediately he had lost the feeling in his legs. He remembers telling the paramedics, as he was being loaded in the ambulance, "You don't have to tell me, I know I'm paralyzed."

He was taken to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where doctors decided that surgery to remove the bullet was too risky -- the bullet was so close to his spine that surgery could have caused more damage.

Mr. Ensey was in the hospital nine days. "After three days, the hole just closed up by itself," he said. Doctors told him he would be sent to Montebello Rehabilitation Hospital, where for six months he would learn to perform basic functions such as using a wheelchair, taking a bath and going to the bathroom. He was out in 10 days.

Then, despite a doctor's order not to return to work for a year, he went back to his job as a machine operator at Mounds Specialty Wire in Cockeysville about two weeks after being released from Montebello. He lasted just one day -- the activity caused his back to swell.

Now, he is just as determined to walk again. His doctors told him he would have to wait six months to a year to see if his paralysis was permanent. But he is not waiting.

"If I wait that long to get up, my muscles will deteriorate," and he will never walk again, he said. Every day, he does a regimen of leg lifts to keep that muscle tissue in his legs firm so it will not deteriorate.

He said he realizes the Functional Electrical Stimulation system will not heal his legs, but just help them to move. But, for Mr. Ensey, walking is walking.

"It might be a machine, but I'm walking until my legs and spinal cord heal," he said.

At the very least, he said, he has to give it a shot.

"Walking is something that's been taken away from me for a limited time," he said. "Or maybe for permanent."

Anyone wishing to contribute to Mr. Ensey's treatment can contact him at (410) 687-6168.

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