Tokyo’s on Nat’s radar
On Christmas night, 2008, Natasha Price went to bed at her aunt’s house in Hereford, England, sated after a big dinner of roast turkey and brandy-soaked pudding.
Natasha, who was 28 at the time, had suffered from a lifetime long litany of health woes. But little did she know that her life was about to take an even darker turn. Boxing Day dawned frosty and cold. Much to her confusion, when Natasha opened her eyes, all she could see in the centre of her right eye was a large, blurry spot.
Natasha was admitted to hospital for tests and treatment with intravenous steroids. Despite this, her left eye developed a large blind spot as well. “It was frightening,” she said. “I had only one per cent of my vision remaining.”
Natasha was thought to be suffering from a variant of neuromyelitis optica – a rare autoimmune inflammatory disorder of the optic nerves and spinal cord that causes demyelination of nerve cells.
Several weeks later things worsened when she developed strange sensations in her legs, followed by weakness, and then total paralysis from the waist down.
After many months in medical care, including in a rehabilitation facility where she learned to mobilise with a wheelchair, Natasha was finally discharged. Initially, she lived with her younger sister in government housing, but she missed her parents, who had migrated to Australia the previous year to open a business. So, following a long struggle with Department of Immigration and Border Protection bureaucracy, she migrated to Australia.
Natasha enjoyed her new home, living with her parents on the Gold Coast, but, despite the warm weather and fresh salty air, her health problems did not end. Her paralysis worsened to involve her arms and she had to be admitted to hospital for multiple treatments including intravenous steroids, plasmapheresis and chemotherapy.
Eventually she regained use of her upper body as well as much of her eyesight. However, it took seven gruelling months in hospital and at a rehabilitation facility before she was able to move back in with her parents again.
But the transition to living back home proved harder than expected, and Natasha found herself retreating to her bedroom, with little contact with the outside world.
“I felt frustrated, always staring at four walls, and feeling like I was in a prison cell,” says Natasha, who is now 38. “I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to change things, my only option was to make it happen myself.”
She was scrolling the internet when she saw an advertisement for the Gold Coast Marathon. “I knew instinctively that that’s what I wanted to do,” Natasha said. “I knew that the only way to smash a big dream is to take a path of stepping stones to get there.”
Her initial stepping stones were modest. Simply getting out of bed for 30 minutes each day, then going for short outings in her wheelchair, then advancing to a manual wheelchair and rolling progressively longer distances. Eventually she built up enough strength so that by August 2016 she was able to complete the five-kilometre Bridge to Brisbane fun run unaided.
“When I crossed that finish line, I’ve never felt anything like the pure joy, elation and sense of pride that I felt in that moment,” she says.
Since that day Natasha has continued to move forward, regularly competing in distance wheelchair racing, with steadily improving times.
Her achievements have not gone unnoticed and last April Natasha was approached by Brisbane-based agency Synergistix Allied Health who offered to sponsor her wheelchair racing if she would trial a revolutionary device known as the Mollii Suit.
The suit is an innovative concept, developed in 2009 in Stockholm, Sweden, by chiropractor Fredrik Lundqvist, physiotherapist Jörgen Sandell and H&M designer Andreas Halldén.
A full body synthetic outfit, similar to a wetsuit with a zipper down the front, the suit contains a detachable battery situated over the abdomen, which is connected to 58 electrodes strategically embedded to cover the arms, legs and torso.
The concept of using electrical current as therapy is not new, and dates to the ancient Egyptians, who would use electric catfish in the Nile for relief of arthritis pain.
In the 1770s, inventor Benjamin Franklin experimented with using electric shocks for the treatment of paralysis, noting temporary improvement in muscle strength. In the mid-19th century electrical therapy enjoyed its peak currency, being used for a number of painful conditions, including headache, toothache and dysmenorrhea.
However, complications, including skin burns and accidental electrocution, along with the increasing availability of alternative analgesia, meant that therapeutic electrotherapy fell into temporary disfavour until the mid-20th century.
In 1965 Canadian psychologist Ronald Melzach and British neuroscientist Patrick Wall described the gate control theory of pain, which stands to this day. They proposed that both thin nerve fibres – which transmit pain – and large diameter nerve fibres – which transmit touch, pressure and vibration – meet in the dorsal horn of the spinal column.
When there is stimulation of large diameter nerve fibres, say by rubbing a stubbed toe, then that impulse will help “close the gate” in the dorsal horn to painful stimuli from thin nerve fibres, thereby reducing pain transmission up the spinal cord to the brain.
In 1974, the first patient-wearable transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machine was patented. In the years since, TENS machine usage has become widespread, with numerous clinical studies showing benefit in reducing not only acute pain, such as labour contractions, but also some forms of chronic pain including diabetic neuropathy.
The inventors of the Mollii Suit have taken the concept of the TENS machine and extended it, by applying electrode points all over the body.
A 2018 randomised case-control study of children with spastic cerebral palsy, conducted by the Department of Children’s Rehabilitation at the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences, showed that children randomised to hour-long Mollii Suit usage, three times a week for three weeks, gained as much improvement in gross motor function and mobility as children who were randomised to conventional physiotherapy.
Professor Christian Wong is a paediatric orthopaedic surgeon at the Hvidovre Hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark, who is currently undertaking a study on Mollii Suit use in children with cerebral palsy.
“In patients with spasticity and dystonia in general, we have seen treatment benefits, but of course not for all patients,” Professor Wong said.
As with any medical treatment, it is important to consider the possibility that any benefits from the Mollii Suit may be at least partly due to the placebo effect. Although the Mollii Suit is relatively new on the Australian market, it has already received approval for National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) funding for assistance in its rental and purchase.
Meanwhile, Natasha continues to train strongly. She has her sights set on an international ranking and hopes to qualify as a wild card entry for the Tokyo Paralympics later this year.