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2017 in Retrospect

Reprinted from PN December 2017

From new national leaders to making air travel better to moving a paralyzed limb with a thought, this year has provided many amazing and noteworthy moments.

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As the frantic pace of the holiday season winds down, it’s a good time to take a step back for a few moments to reflect on the changes of the past year and mentally reset for the year ahead. For Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), 2017 came with new leadership at the national level, as well as continued advocacy efforts in the areas of health care and legislation on behalf of the nation’s most catastrophically injured veterans. PN has had a busy year, too. We’ve crisscrossed the country to bring you coverage of the 37th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Cincinnati, the PVA Summit + Expo in National Harbor, Md., the latest in accessible technology from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and even some amazing stories from the Invictus Games in Toronto. With all of that and so much more to consider, we’ve somehow managed to whittle things down and highlight just a few of this year’s people, places and things from 2017.

Change Of Command

A close race for national president marked PVA’s executive committee election at the 71st national convention in National Harbor, Md., in May. David Zurfluh won the post, edging out Ken Weas by just one vote, 16-15. An Air Force veteran, Zurfluh has held several positions in the PVA Northwest Chapter since 2003, including legislative director, vice president and president. 

“I joined Paralyzed Veterans of America the same year I was injured. As I lay in my hospital bed after my injury, lost, broken and wondering about my future, Paralyzed Veterans came to my aid, gave me hope and showed me a path to succeed in life,” says Zurfluh. “I can’t imagine any better way to pay it forward than to lead an organization that offers new lives to injured veterans.”

Moving Into The Future

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Learning about PVA’s new leadership wasn’t limited to the print edition of PN or even its website because the magazine and its sister publication, SPORTS ’N SPOKES (S’NS), took a big technological step in June. PN and S’NS joined the digital realm that month with the release of mobile applications (apps) for both magazines. The apps allow magazine subscribers to access the full edition of each magazine on their Apple or Android mobile devices, as well as editions from previous months, all with the swipe of a finger. 

To see a video tutorial on how to download and use the app, visit vimeo.com/222256890.

That technological step was managed under the guidance of then-Editor Richard Hoover, who decided to retire that same month after 10 years leading PVA Publications. Tom Fjerstad was promoted from deputy editor to replace Hoover as editor. Overseeing PVA Publications’ step into the digital arena was only a small part of the major influence Hoover had on PVA. There’s honestly not much Hoover hasn’t done for PVA. Besides serving as editor, he’s served as national president, national senior vice president, national vice president, national executive director, national treasurer, on the national board of directors and as a member of the PVA Arizona Chapter Board of Directors. 

“During my tenure, technology advanced, and we had to develop a digital strategy,” Hoover wrote in his final editorial in the June issue of PN. “PN and S’NS are now each available in print and digital formats, have websites and new mobile applications available through iTunes and Google Play. It’s my belief that PVA Publications is on the leading edge of publishing in the digital age.”

Games Co-Founder Bids Adieu

Hoover’s retirement wasn’t the only PVA departure this year. At July’s 37th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Cincinnati, Tom Brown, director and co-founder of the Games, retired and was honored for his service. Brown helped start the Games along with  Wally Lynch, director of recreation therapy at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) central office, and Muriel Barber, chief of recreation therapy at Hunter Holmes VA Hospital in Richmond, Va. PVA’s Ernie Butler will take over as the Games’ director. Despite going through a heart attack, quadruple bypass surgery and two strokes this past year, Brown has never missed a Games and has only missed one site visit in 37 years.

“I’ve always kind of tried to stay in the background ’cause the spotlight is on you guys, you veterans, and always has been and always should be,” says Brown.


New VA Leadership

Change was in the air at the VA as well, as David Shulkin, MD, was confirmed as the department’s new secretary in February, and Itala Manosha Wickremasinghe, MD, was selected as the executive director of the VA Spinal-Cord Injury and Disease System in April. Shulkin replaced Robert McDonald and is the first VA secretary who didn’t serve in the military but previously served as undersecretary of the VA. Upon his confirmation, Shulkin promised Congress and stakeholders the VA “would not be privatized on [his] watch,” and that he would continue to lead efforts to increase access for veterans, prevent suicide, address the unique needs of women veterans, support veterans’ families and caregivers, continue to drive down the disability backlog and veteran homelessness and pursue legislation to reform the appeals process. Wickremasinghe’s appointment came after the position had been vacant for a year.

“This position is critical to the quality of care that Paralyzed Veterans of America members and all veterans with spinal-cord injury or disease receive at the VA,” says PVA Associate Executive Director of Medical Services Lana McKenzie, RN, BSN, CCM, MHA. “The oversight and operational direction this position provides is intended to safeguard the care of a contingent of veterans with the most complex and acute medical needs.”

Reaching Goals 

A veteran with the complex and acute medical needs McKenzie mentions was at the center of an ongoing research study in human-machine interfaces that made headlines in March. Navy veteran Bill Kochevar moved a paralyzed limb for the first time in eight years with just a thought after becoming the first recipient of an implanted brain-recording and muscle-stimulating system. Researchers from Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland), the Cleveland Functional Electrical Stimulation Center at the Louis Stokes Cleveland Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center and University Hospitals (UH) Cleveland Medical Center worked with Kochevar, who was paralyzed below his shoulders in a bicycling accident, to restore movement in Kochevar’s right arm and hand.  Holding a makeshift handle pierced through a dry sponge, Kochevar scratched the side of his nose with the sponge. He scooped forkfuls of mashed potatoes from a bowl — perhaps his top goal — and savored each mouthful.

“For somebody who’s been injured eight years and couldn’t move, being able to move just that little bit is awesome to me,” says the 56-year-old from Cleveland. “It’s better than I thought it would be.”

A brain-computer interface with recording electrodes under his skull and a functional electrical stimulation system activating his arm and hand reconnects his brain to paralyzed muscles. With 45 weeks of training, Kochevar eventually was able to move his arm and hand to grab a cup or feed himself, just by thinking about it. 

“By restoring the communication of the will to move from the brain directly to the body, this work will hopefully begin to restore the hope of millions of paralyzed individuals that someday they will be able to move freely again,” says Benjamin Walter, associate professor of neurology at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, clinical principal investigator of the Cleveland BrainGate2 trial and medical director of the Deep Brain Stimulation Program at UH Cleveland Medical Center.

Advances needed to make the combined technology usable outside of a lab aren’t far from reality, the researchers say. 

Airline Lawsuit

Although it didn’t involve a breakthrough in technology, PVA’s Government Relations Department spent a good part of 2017 also helping people with disabilities move more easily — when traveling by air. Progress was made late last year when the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced that its negotiated rulemaking committee, the ACCESS Advisory Committee, reached an agreement to improve the accessibility of lavatories on single-aisle aircraft and of in-flight entertainment. PVA also advocated for improvements such as referral of Air Carrier Access Act-related complaints to the Department of Justice, a private right of action, a disability bill of rights, standards for boarding, deplaning, lavatories and seating, and improved training for airline personnel and their contractors, among other improvements. However, that progress hit a snag in March when the DOT abruptly delayed implementation of a rule that would require domestic airlines to track and report data on lost and damaged wheelchairs and scooters, without providing the public any notice or opportunity to comment, in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. The rule was scheduled for implementation in January 2018, but the DOT claimed a delay until January 2019 was necessary because of implementation “challenges” faced by the airline industry. However, the only evidence of these challenges the DOT presented was a single email the agency received from the airline industry. PVA filed a lawsuit against the DOT in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on July 31. The lawsuit looks to reinstate the rule’s original effective date.

As 2017 comes to a close, PVA will continue to advocate for improved access to air travel for passengers with disabilities by working with elected officials, members of the White House administration and the air carriers. To share your air travel story, visit airaccess360.org.

 

 

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2017 in Retrospect

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