The first time Kevin Maher explained the GyroStim to me, I had one reaction:
So he directed me to his website, where I could get an idea of what this machine he invented a few years ago looks like. Since the soon-to-be-opened Concussion and Balance Treatment Center of Tampa Bay is only the seventh location in the world to invest in a GyroStim to provide alternative therapy for brain injuries, he wanted me to know about it.
I didn't want to hurt his feelings. But at first glance, it looked like one of those rides I would never take at a fair or carnival. Imagine an egg-shaped contraption where you're strapped in and taken for a rotating spin, upside down and all around. The kind of ride where the chances of me upchucking midpoint are fairly high.
Only this is no thrill ride. This machine, at a cost of about $120,000, is designed to change lives dramatically. It did in Kevin's family.
Here's the scientific explanation of the GyroStim. It's a multi-axis rotational therapy that uses a fully automated, computer-controlled rotating chair. Put it in motion, and it's designed to target the vestibular system and trigger neurological rehabilitation.
If that all sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, consider this: Since putting his machine on the market, it's been used for motion-sickness testing by the U.S. Air Force Academy; by researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz.; and by several National Hockey League players for concussion recovery, including the Pittsburgh Penguins' high-profile forward Sidney Crosby.
This is still considered an alternative therapy and is not yet approved by the Federal Drug Administration as a medical device. However, testing began in November to obtain that approval.
Kevin, a former engineer in the semiconductor industry, doesn't need the tests to convince him of the GyroStim's benefits. All he has to do is look at his daughter and he knows.
“This was as much a faith experience for me than anything else,” says Kevin, who makes his home in Colorado Springs, Colo. Without faith, he says, “I could not have made this journey. I had to learn that God doesn't always answer our prayers in the way we want them, or in the timeframe we want.”
That journey began 15 years ago for Kevin and his wife, Rhonda, when their second daughter, MacKenzie, was born.
Up until then, life was picture-perfect. The couple had moved from California to Colorado Springs, where Rhonda's family lived, and built a beautiful home in a good neighborhood. Kevin's career was on the fast track; his headhunter wife ran her own job placement company. The couple's first-born, Jessica, had arrived 17 months earlier, and now they were anticipating her baby sister.
But MacKenzie came three months ahead of schedule. Weighing just 3 pounds and 2 ounces, she was a frail little thing, clinging to life. The Mahers could only cling to their Roman Catholic faith as they prepared to care for her.
“Everything was measured in grams. It was touch and go, and it was very scary,” Kevin recalls.
When she gained enough weight to come home, Kevin and Rhonda knew soon enough something wasn't right. She didn't squirm like other babies when she was held. She was limp, without any muscle, unable to keep her head up. She couldn't hold a bottle.
This was before the Internet had all the answers and a support group for everything, so any questions the Mahers had were directed to the doctors. They requested diagnostic tests for their baby. When the answer finally came, it was devastating and life-changing.
Your daughter suffered a severe brain injury, they were told. She has cerebral palsy. She will require a lot of special therapy and won't improve much. Maybe you should consider putting her in an institution.
The Mahers wouldn't hear of it.
After the initial shock, they made MacKenzie's improvement their No. 1 mission. Rhonda quit her job and assisted with the rigorous daily therapy, which included repeated vestibular stimulation — chair spins, log rolls, somersaults. They spent $5,000 a week twice a year to go to a program in Pennsylvania that developed and monitored a specialized treatment program for children with neurological issues, ranging from autism to effects of concussions.
And when science offered little hope, they turned to faith healers and intense prayer. Still, MacKenzie couldn't walk or talk or sit up without assistance. They saw some progress, but not enough to give their daughter hope for a normal life.
Eleven years ago, Rhonda asked for a birthday wish that would change their lives. All she wanted was to take the six-hour trip to El Santuario de Chimayo, an adobe mission church in northern New Mexico. It was built on the site where a Chimayo friar supposedly found a miraculous glowing crucifix on the ground around 1810.
Pilgrims still go there to gather what they believe is holy dirt at the property. Many claim it has healing powers.
Kevin didn't want to go. He only agreed because it was Rhonda's solitary birthday request.
“It won't change a thing,” he told her. “Hard work is the only thing that will work.”
When they got to the church, a still skeptical Kevin entered a room off the main hallway. He recalls seeing a beautiful, warm light illuminate paintings of Christ hanging on the walls. After years of taking a no-nonsense approach to his daughter's impairment, his emotions unfurled. He dropped to the floor sobbing, praying for God's intervention. Please, please, Lord, help MacKenzie.
After he collected himself, he scraped some of the dirt from the hole in the middle of the floor, put it in a vial and headed back home to Colorado Springs. The next morning, while making lunch, a powerful vision came to him.
“I saw MacKenzie in a spinning machine, strapped in securely. She was getting her brain stimulated in a controlled environment. I saw that machine and the blueprint right in front of me, clear as day,” he recalls.
He didn't respond to his vision right away. He still prayed to God to touch his daughter and restore her health. Taking this path of fixing it himself seemed too daunting. But he finally accepted that this was his mission, and God would be there for him every step of the way. The scientist in him got to work.
He made his first spinning chair in his basement. MacKenzie was his test case, and the mechanized therapy appeared to work. Everything improved: her trunk control, her breath support and her speech. She was more lively and attentive after her sessions.
Kevin kept at it, finally coming up with a device he felt was marketable. If it helped his daughter, how many others could it help? In 2007, he launched UltraThera Technologies Inc. It hasn't been an easy journey by any means, draining the family's savings account and requiring Kevin to market a product that doesn't have the full support of the medical community — yet. It took five years for the company to show a profit.
He turns to 15-year-old MacKenzie as testimony for the more advanced GyroStim, now in seven sites and two research facilities. Two more are in production; by the end of July, the GyroStim will be in five countries.
The little girl who doctors once suggested should be institutionalized is now a straight-A student in a mainstream school who writes poetry. Though she uses a cane to walk and still has difficulties with her motor skills, she dreams of being a doctor one day, specializing in helping kids with cerebral palsy.
“There is no silver bullet for this brain injury. But we know that this therapy, along with all the other therapies she has gone through, has helped her make incredible strides,” Kevin says. “God didn't answer my prayers the way I wanted. He answered them in a way that will help so many others.”
Some of those possibilities include people with dementia, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. The tests now being conducted at the Mayo Clinic Aerospace Medicine and Vestibular Research Laboratory are a step in the right direction, but it will take much more to get the GyroStim accepted by the mainstream medical community.
“We need more research and larger populations,” Kevin says. Until then, with no insurance coverage, patients can end up paying thousands of dollars out of pocket for a treatment plan.
As for that holy shrine in Chimayo where Kevin got his vision? He revisited on New Year's Day 2005, going straight to the sun-bathed room where he had his moving experience. This time, however, it was sterile and white with bare walls.
What happened? Where are the paintings, where are the stained-glass windows with light streaming through? He asked a church guide.
Nothing, he was told. This is the way it has always looked.