NNU engineering students design to help a friend walk again

Last Updated 19 August, 2015

One moment in 2010 changed Richelle Heacock’s life forever. This multi-sport athlete was driving home to Ashford, Wash, when she was in a tragic car accident that left her paralyzed and forced her to face life in a wheelchair instead of on the court. Three years later in the fall of 2013, Northwest Nazarene University engineering student David Vinson, a childhood friend of Heacock, brought her situation to the attention of his engineering project team. They decided to use their senior design project course to try to help Heacock fulfill her dream of walking again.

“When a person has a spinal cord injury, it is easy to sit back and watch inactivity eat away at your muscles. For any person, this is very frightening, but as an athlete, it is unbearable,” describes Heacock. In spite of the potential for self-pity, Heacock is optimistic. She and her family find hope in the verse Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” She says, “I don’t believe God spared me out of that wreck so I can sit in a chair for the rest of my life.” 

That’s where Vinson (Elbe, Wash.), Paulo Salvador (Sao Paulo, Brazil), and Mark Horton (Nyssa, Ore.) came in. The goal of their project was to design a walking rehabilitation machine to assist paraplegic patients in the process of learning how to walk again. Research shows that replication of the walking motion can help re-train nerves in the lower spine and legs to regain the memory of how to walk. Dr. Stephen Parke, NNU faculty advisor on the project, explains, “The NNU simple mechanical system mimics natural walking motion of the feet, ankles, and legs while the patient is suspended in a safety harness above a treadmill, allowing the soles of the feet to gently touch the treadmill surface that activates walking-nerve impulses.”

There are other more sophisticated, similar machines currently available, but access to them is difficult due to high cost. Heacock and her family would have to travel to distant rehab centers in order to use these expensive machines. The team’s goal was to design an inexpensive, simple system that could be used everyday at home with only one assisting therapist.  Team member Horton says, “Walking rehabilitation systems currently on the market are very expensive, so we wanted to attempt to design a system that would be much more affordable.”

With only one school year to complete the project, the team began their work in Sep. 2013. “Our original ambitions were just that—very ambitious,” Vinson said. “Fortunately, we were able to simplify the system down to only what we needed.” 

The three team members quickly learned they needed outside help in order to make this project successful. Ron Stone, Heacock’s physical therapist for the past three years, proved to be a valuable resource in order to make sure that their design would not only be helpful but also safe. “Anything that makes the rehabilitation process simpler and smoother truly improves everyday life, as well as makes recovery and healing a more fathomable outcome,” Heacock said.  

The team produced a “proof-of-concept” prototype of their design, which was demonstrated at NNU Senior Project Day in April and will be delivered to Stone this summer. Vinson, sharing his hopes for the project, said, “I’m trying not to get too excited, but if it is effective for Richelle, there is the possibility that it could be used to help others as well.” 

Vinson is not alone, Stone is also enthusiastic about what the team accomplished: “This project demonstrated the students’ ability to synthesize what they have learned and apply it to an urgent, compassionate engineering problem. I applaud their outcome!” 

After the design is delivered to Stone, it will undergo more engineering testing and safety evaluation before being used by Heacock in her home. This project is a great example of how NNU engineering students are applying their ideas and talents to urgent, compassionate human needs around the world and here at home. They are working to change the world, one person at a time, just as Heacock shares: “I am so blessed that I crossed paths with such wonderful human beings who care about others and are willing to help.”