I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was anyway. But let me back up. See, I got into research because I was fascinated by the wondrous things a human body could do. I began in kinesiology then made my way into neuroscience when I wanted to get to the source of the movements—the brain.
My interest in martial arts is what got me into science. I began studying karate when I was 13 and quickly I got fascinated by what a trained person was capable of doing. Like move so fast with such precision in a seamless combination of gross physical power and fine motor control. My brother was my first teacher and I guess I saw what he was able to do and wanted some too!
But before any of that I really had this idea I wanted to grow up and be a physician. My sister was a nurse and then went to medical school. And being a physician seemed pretty neat. You got to learn some pretty interesting stuff and you got to help people. I really wanted to do something to help people.
When I went off to university I thought I was on my way to taking the medical route like my sister. But instead, I got exposed to the idea of research and did some projects of my own—at first I even got to combine my love of martial arts and science. I liked it, this idea of asking questions and discovering the answers. But I still wanted to be able to help people.
So, shortly into my scientific career, I figured out a way maybe I could do both—ask and answer important questions and help people too. I focused on the neural control of movement and rehabilitation of walking after stroke and spinal cord injury.
This continues as my main research focus now. In my lab we do work to try and understand how our arms and legs are coordinated when we walk and what happens to disrupt this coordination after something like a stroke. And, importantly, how to try and guide the process of making things better in rehabilitation. Like how to make weak stronger again.
But it is a very incremental process that takes a long time. Right now in my lab we are doing work in those with stroke that I was keen to do more than 10 years ago. But back then we didn’t have enough background knowledge to try some of the ideas out. Now we do.
One thing we tried out recently was a new way to try and help improve the strength of the weaker limb after a stroke. We did something unusual. We trained the stronger side to see if it would help the weaker side. And it did. It’s called “cross education” and later I will write another post to talk more about this phenomenon because it is kind of interesting. You can read a bit about the research right here if you want.
But right now I want to underline something that happened to me as a result of this project. It’s something that’s happened to me a few times but I get surprised each time anyway.
This study we just did has gotten quite a bit of media attention and as a result a number of people have contacted me asking how they could make use of this idea. The emails and phone calls have come from folks who have had a stroke or their caregivers.
And they want to use what we have found to help them get stronger. The problem is this study isn’t itself a therapy. It is an important proof of concept—we can use cross education in stroke. But it’s not the final step as part of a therapeutic treatment. So it will help people eventually, probably, but not really quite yet.
So when I get contacted by people I have to explain to them that we are pretty excited about our result. But the result isn’t yielding a treatment yet. When I do this I feel kind of like I am letting them down. I write back with apologetic-sounding emails that carefully explain we can’t really directly help them now, but hope our work will help develop new therapies.
And this is the really interesting part. They write back and thank me anyway. They understand that it will take more work. Sure they would like a solution now. But they get it. And they usually go even further. They express how much they appreciate the kind of work I and others like me are doing. And it always surprises me, in a good way.
I remember speaking to a group of research participants with stroke some years ago. I outlined the progress we had made thanks to their help and where we were going. And how it might, I was sorry to say, take 15 or 20 years to change or improve therapy. “It’s okay”, I vividly remember this one gentleman telling me, “you have given us the gift of hope. Just knowing you are doing these things helps us push ourselves to keep working at our own recovery”.
The gift of hope.
It turns out that I am helping people after all. I am glad for that. It’s the kind of feedback that helps inspire me to keep forging ahead with my research program and with training others. Doing biomedical and clinical research takes a lot of time and effort. And meaningful outcomes can take years and decades to emerge.
It helps sustain me to know the community I am trying to help understands the process.
The gift of hope is an interesting idea. And what’s any gift worth without acceptance? Maybe we do give the gift of hope, but we are inspired by the acceptance of the incremental answers science is able to provide.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955) wrote that “…all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike-and yet it is the most precious thing we have.” Just as precious is understanding the combination of hope and acceptance amongst and between society and scientists that drives the experience of trying to make a difference. And that, I think, is important for each and every one of us.
© E. Paul Zehr, 2012