Hope Happens Here: Matt Fritzie - Reeve Foundation

MattParsing the hard decisions around entering a clinical trial.

Matt Fritzie was 18 and a new freshman in college when he dove into a makeshift frat-party pool and broke his neck – a C7 burst fracture that left him paralyzed from the chest down. He spent a week in the ICU before being airlifted to Craig Hospital in Colorado for intensive inpatient rehab. There, he learned how to navigate life with a spinal cord injury and became motivated to begin anew. He left rehab determined to go back to college to finish his degree and get his life back on track.

He did that and more, earning his bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Arizona and moving on to post-graduate training at the University of Notre Dame’s ESTEEM business entrepreneurship program. That set him up for a job in product development in Louisville, Ky., as a project manager for a medical device company – the same one that makes the standing support system used in the study he would later enter. It was there that he first learned of the clinical trial on epidural stimulation – dubbed “The Big Idea” -- being conducted at the University of Louisville’s Frazier Rehab Institute.

What’s “The Big Idea?”

He entered his information into a clinical trial registry, initiating the process for enrolling. It was a big step. To be eligible for the study, he had to quit his job, which would have created a conflict of interest.

“I had spoken with previous participants when I signed up, so I knew it wasn’t a full-on cure,” Matt says. “But I thought it would be a great opportunity to recover some function and get to the point of where I’m having more hope about recovery.”

‘A Catalyst for Your Nervous System’

In April of 2019, he underwent surgery to implant a device into his lower spine that would, when active, deliver continuous electrical current to specific locations on the lower part of the spinal cord. After two weeks of bed rest to heal, it was time for the training to begin. Matt was randomized into two subgroups focused on standing and blood pressure regulation, each with its own rigorous protocol. The basic idea is to relearn the task, with the aid of tiny electrical pulses from the stimulator at varying frequencies and intensities tailored to each person as well as to the task at hand.

“You’re using the stimulator as a catalyst for your nervous system and the neuromuscular system that the spinal cord uses to innervate your muscles,” Matt says. “You’re kind of raising the excitability, and then you can tap into that through repetitive activity-based therapy. You’re retraining your body to utilize that stimulation for different functions.”

Learn more about how epidural stimulation works.

The protocols required repetitive training for multiple hours a day, most days of the week. Going into it, Matt says he didn’t fully realize the scope of commitment and involvement. “You have to be ready for the commitment and dedication. You have to be ready to stop your every-day job and relocate and do this for a year or two. It’s a big commitment.”

Now almost three years out from his implant, Matt says he has recovered “enough function to live independently but still not as much as I was hoping for.“ The transition to life after such intensive rehab at Frazier was challenging. Matt moved to Michigan to pursue a graduate degree and play in a newly founded adaptive sports program at the University of Michigan. He continues to do some standing therapy with the stimulator on his own when at home. Other therapies embedded in the stimulation programming are targeted at improving voluntary movements and core strength.

Eyes Wide Open

Even with the hurdles, Matt says he has recommended others give epidural stimulation a close look – with eyes wide open. It’s important to fully understand what is involved in the research vis a vis one’s capacity. Being in a clinical trial can tax one’s mental health, he says, and activity-based therapeutic protocols can be daunting and rigid.

“Some things about being in a research trial are not encouraging or exciting,” he says candidly, pointing to “fairly invasive assessments” that are required for the duration of the study as an example. “You can start to feel like a guinea pig.”

Part of the problem is the reality that people with chronic spinal cord injury have so few options, Matt observes – a fact that won’t change without more clinical trials and more people willing to participate in them. “You’re doing it for the whole community, not just for yourself. As participants, we are helping advance the research. I’m glad to be given the opportunity to be a part of it.”

He also appreciates the long-lasting connections he has made through the network of participants involved in the clinical trial. “It’s good to see what others’ experiences are like. Some people get huge benefit from epidural stimulation for day-to-day life,” he says. “I’ve been able to get some too. Part of it is about figuring out the best way to manage it for you.”

To help support The Big Idea, please visit christopherreeve.org/donate.

Written by Brenda E. Patoine

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About the Author - Reeve Staff

This blog was written by the Reeve Foundation for educational purposes. For more information please reach out to information@christopherreeve.org

Reeve Staff

The opinions expressed in these blogs are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.