Bill would fund research for spine, brain injuries

By T.W. Budig, ECM Capitol Reporter

It’s more than just another bill to her, said Rep. Laurie Halverson of Eagan.

Halverson is carrying legislation to create a research grant program to fund breakthrough research and treatment of spinal cord and traumatic brain injury.

A freshman Democrat, she has a background as a caregiver for people with spinal cord injuries.

So the proposed creation of the Jablonski/Roderick Spinal Cord and Traumatic Brain Injury Grant Program is emotional.

“It’s an issue very close to my heart,” Halverson said.

Halverson and Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, admit their legislation faces challenges.

They have no funding source for the $4 million a year they want the grant program funded.

But the lawmakers argue that the funding is out there.

“When you look at the grand scheme of the budget, this will have a place in the discussion,” Halverson said.

Certainly, there’s need.

More than 10,000 Minnesotans sustain traumatic brain injuries a year, while some 300 suffer spinal cord injuries, according to legislation advocates.

Injuries can happen to anyone, Halverson said.

One happened to Gabe Roderick of Minneapolis.

Roderick, who used to play piano and still sings in a band, suffered a spinal cord injury close to five years ago while body surfing in Costa Rica on an exchange program.

His explanation of the accident is concise.

He just dove too shallow, Roderick said.

“The biggest thing I want back from this (advances in treatment) is my hands, my bladder, my bowels,” Roderick said.

Getting ready in the morning takes two hours, he said.

It would be wonderful to play the piano again, Roderick said.

When people see someone in a wheelchair they often conclude the obvious — the person can’t walk, Gabe Roderick’s father, Matthew Roderick, said.

But injuries to the spinal cord have a complex impact on the entire body, he said.

The Rodericks have travelled the world seeking help for Gabe.

“This is not some sort of escape,” Matthew Roderick said.

It’s not an inability to deal with grief.

Spinal cord injury research is on the brink of great advancements, Matthew Roderick is convinced..

“This is not a pipe dream,” he said.

Dr. Ann Parr, of the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Minnesota, believes ongoing spinal and brain injury research is indeed showing great promise.

She talks of transitional research — moving beyond basics into application.

With spinal injuries, some of the “wires” in the spine can remain intact but lack cellular coatings, like a wire lacking plastic coating, Parr said, explaining her research.

Parr is looking into ways of using cells taken from the injured person’s own body and using them to repair the “wires.”

Advances in treatment may not translate into paralyzed people getting up and walking again.

But it could mean regaining the use of some body functions.

That’s a big thing, she said.

“Funding is very hard to come by,” Parr said.

Halverson looks to getting more House members to sign onto her bill.

Although no hearing has been scheduled, Halverson serves on the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee.

That could help secure a hearing.

The grant program also bears the name of another spinal cord injury victim, Jack Jablonski, a young man injured during a high school hockey game.