There are 250,000 people with spinal-cord injuries in the United States.
One night in 1982, John Mumford was working on an avalanche patrol on an icy Colorado mountain pass when the van carrying him and two other men slid off the road and plunged over a cliff. The other guys were able to walk away, but Mumford had broken his neck. The lower half of his body was paralyzed, and though he could bend his arms at the elbows, he could no longer grasp things in his hands.
Fifteen years later, however, he received a technological wonder that reactivated his left hand. It was known as the Freehand System. A surgeon placed a sensor on Mumford's right shoulder, implanted a pacemaker-size device known as a stimulator just below the skin on his upper chest, and threaded wires into the muscles of his left arm. On the outside of Mumford's body, a wire ran from the shoulder sensor to an external control unit; another wire ran from that control unit to a transmitting coil over the stimulator in his chest. Out of this kludge came something incredible: by maneuvering his right shoulder in certain ways, Mumford could send signals through the stimulator and down his left arm into the muscles of his hand. The device fell short of perfection—he wished he could throw darts with his buddies. But he could hold a key or a fork or a spoon or a glass. He could open the refrigerator, take out a sandwich, and eat it on his own. Mumford was so enthusiastic that he went to work for the manufacturer, a Cleveland-area company called NeuroControl, traveling the country to demonstrate the Freehand at assistive-technology trade shows.
Mumford was in Cleveland for a marketing meeting in 2001 when he got news that still baffles him: NeuroControl was getting out of the Freehand business. It would focus instead on a bigger potential market with a device that helped stroke victims. Before long, NeuroControl went out of business entirely, wiping out at least $26 million in investment. At first, Mumford remained an enthusiastic user of the Freehand, though one thing worried him: the wires running outside his body would sometimes fray or break after catching on clothing. Each time, he found someone who could reach into his supply of replacements and reconnect the system. But by 2010, the last wire was gone, and without the prospect of tech support from NeuroControl, the electrical equipment implanted in Mumford's body went dormant. He lost the independence that had come from having regained extensive use of one hand. "To all of a sudden have that taken away—it's incredibly frustrating," he says. "There's not a day where I don't miss it."