Debbie Melnick's Story

For years, Debbie Melnick led an active life, despite having multiple sclerosis.

The high-energy, 40-year-old heads her own stationery business and enjoyed running and playing basketball to stay fit. But in 2013, when Melnick was seven months pregnant, she caught the flu. That’s when the spasticity began.

Spasticity, or feelings of stiffness and a range of involuntary muscle spasms, is a common symptom of multiple sclerosis.

“Spasticity fights you walking,” Melnick says. “I’m trying to walk, and my leg is fighting me. It made life really difficult.”

Debbie MelnickMelnick’s left leg was often out of control. She couldn’t turn over in bed at night, and she struggled to perform basic tasks like walking. To get around, she relied on a scooter. When she sought help for her condition, doctors told her to simply stretch her leg, Melnick says. Yet every physical therapy clinic she visited lacked the specialized equipment she needed.

After her son, Aaron, was born, Melnick questioned if she’d ever be able to care for and play with him without assistance.

“I was struggling,” she says. “I didn’t know what I needed.”

Fortunately, Kennedy Krieger Institute’s International Center for Spinal Cord Injury (ICSCI) did. Through activity-based restorative therapies, the renowned center helps patients like Melnick gain improved health and quality of life, as well as some degree of sensation, movement, and independence. A work colleague who received treatment at ICSCI recommended Melnick give the center a try. From the moment she arrived, Melnick says she knew the center was a good fit.

Albert Recio, M.D., an ICSCI physician who specializes in paralysis restoration, performed the “most thorough neurological exam” Melnick ever had, she says.

“He mapped every nerve pathway from head to toe,” she says.

During the initial, two-hour evaluation, Dr. Recio examined tracts, or bundles of nerve fibers, that ran through Melnick’s spine. He also performed deep pressure and light touch pin pricks to measure her body’s response and ordered imaging of her spine.

“We don’t leave any stone unturned,” Dr. Recio says. “We’re an international leader in this kind of care.”

Based on the results, Dr. Recio recommended an intense, aggressive therapy program: one hour of occupational therapy and three hours of physical therapy, three days a week. At first, the recommendation intimidated Melnick.

“I was up at night, worrying ‘How am I going to do this, because physically, I can hardly get out of bed,’” she says. “Just going to the bathroom was a struggle.”

Debbie Melnick

But with the help of friends and family, as well as the dedicated staff at ICSCI, Melnick successfully completed her therapy—often with Aaron in tow.

Ashley Miller, physical therapist at ICSCI, used treadmill training and a body weight harness to help Melnick improve her standing balance and walking. She also incorporated cycling with functional electrical stimulation (FES) into Melnick’s therapy. FES applies small electrical pulses to paralyzed muscles to restore their function.

Shannon Corbey, ICSCI occupational therapist, worked with Melnick to increase and improve her interaction with Aaron.

“She wanted to find ways she could care for him and play with him independently and safely,” Corbey says.

With Corbey’s help, Melnick learned safe play positions, like lying on her stomach and propping herself up on her elbows. Corbey also taught Melnick techniques for safely getting then 16-month-old Aaron—who had become part of her therapy—in and out of his car seat and herself in and out of bed and the bathtub.

“They were amazing with creating real life situations,” Melnick says.

In addition to making her stronger physically, these simple activities empowered her to “be a stronger mother,” she says.

Throughout her three months of therapy, Melnick did experience a few setbacks. After weeks of making progress in physical therapy and moving from a walker to just a single crutch to get around, she awoke one morning and could not move. That’s the nature of a progressive disease like MS, Melnick says. It is unpredictable.

Still, the setbacks didn’t stop her determination. She continued her therapy, working hard to resume where she left off.

Melnick’s hard work paid off, both Corbey and Miller say.

“It takes her more time to do things, but she was able to find a way to do it and persevere without assistance,” Corbey says. “She created her own potential,” Miller adds. “She was able to become more independent in her own life.”

By the end of her therapy sessions, Melnick was active and on her feet at least three to four hours a day. She could walk with crutches, and she could successfully play with Aaron using the techniques she learned.

As for the ICSCI doctors and staff, Melnick says she is thankful every day for the care they provided.

“It’s a group of angels,” she says. “They want nothing more than to help you.”