'Diaphragm pacing system' gives taste, smell back to paralyzed patients

The day after her new breathing device was implanted, Ashley Hicks did something astounding: she smelled the sweet scent of flowers in a hospital bouquet.

"I was speechless," she says now. "I couldn't believe how much I missed that."

Hicks, 21, had been unable to smell -- or taste -- anything for the nine years since she was shot in the neck during a drive-by attack at her Pompano Beach home.

Paralyzed and unable to breathe, she had been kept alive by a mechanical ventilator. But it pumped air into her lungs through a tracheostomy -- a hole in her neck -- bypassing her mouth and nose. And that meant she had no sense of taste or smell.

The new device she got in April, a "diaphragm pacing system," changed that. Using tiny steel electrodes implanted in her chest, it electronically stimulates her diaphragm to contract, pulling air into her lungs through her nose and mouth. It lets her breathe the way everybody else does. And it returned her senses of taste and smell.

And more. When successful, the new device -- FDA-approved in 2008 but just arriving in South Florida -- can wean patients paralyzed by spinal-cord injury or disease off their bulky, noisy, expensive mechanical ventilators. It can help them speak better, avoid infections and sometimes get them out of expensive hospitals and skilled nursing homes and back to work, study and home.

Even Superman praised the system. Actor Christopher Reeve, paralyzed in a fall from a horse in 1995, told Barbara Walters in his final interview before his 2004 death that the pacing system, then experimental, had helped his morale.

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