RIVERVIEW – After receiving a life-changing medical device that allows her to walk naturally again, a Riverview woman is on a mission to help others step freely.
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 21, four years ago Daisy Vega developed a condition known as foot drop. The condition causes a weakness or paralysis of the muscles that lift the front part of the foot necessary for walking.
To avoid dragging their toes on the ground while walking, many sufferers of foot drop lift their knees higher than normal or swing their leg in a wide arc while walking. The condition can occur in conjunction with a number of disorders, including multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries and strokes.
There is no cure. In the past, sufferers were treated with surgery, physical therapy and with fittings of light-weight braces and shoe inserts.
Once a professional dancer in New York, Vega said she was resigned to a life in which walking was difficult and dancing was impossible.
Then, last year, her family doctor told her about a new device called WalkAide that helps victims of foot drop walk normally again.
Developed in 2006 by Innovative Neurotronics Inc. of Austin, Texas, the device is worn on the calf just below the knee. It alleviates foot drop by sending gentle electronic impulses that activate the leg muscles and prompt the foot to lift and follow through with each step, according to the company’s website, www.walkaide.com. The rehabilitative device is available through the Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics clinics, including the clinic in Brandon where Vega received her WalkAide.
“The WalkAide costs $5,000 but I found out my insurance would pay for mine so my doctor wrote me a prescription and I made an appointment to be fitted for the device,” said Vega.
However, when it came time to pay, Vega’s insurance company rejected her claim, saying the device is considered experimental. Vega was forced to pay for the WalkAide out of pocket.
“Fortunately, I had the $5,000,” said Vega. “But not everyone does. It hurt me to know that there were people out there who couldn’t walk just because they didn’t have $5,000.”
Vega received her WalkAide in November 2012 and discovered it not only allowed her to walk naturally but also to experience the simple pleasures of dancing with her husband, Wilfredo, and participating in aerobics classes with her friends.
“It hit me in my heart that I should help others experience the freedom the device gave me,” said Vega.
With that goal, she formed the nonprofit Freedom to Walk Foundation Inc. on Jan. 1, 2013. The foundation subsequently received its federal nonprofit status in November.
An enthusiastic Zumba dancer since receiving her WalkAide, Vega decided to host a Zumbathon as her first fundraising event.
“Thanks to the support of many volunteers, it was very successful,” said Vega.
Held May 18 at the Riverview Civic Center, the event surpassed its $1,000 goal, raising more than $1,500 for the foundation.
Vega and the foundation’s board of directors followed up with an Oct. 5 black-tie gala at the Centre Club in Tampa, raising enough funds to purchase a WalkAide for the foundation’s first recipient, 12-year-old Daniel Rios of Kissimmee.
Rios developed foot drop after having a stroke as an infant following surgery for a congenital heart defect. Vega said his family could not afford the device although a home trial with the WalkAide proved he was an ideal candidate.
The foundation presented the funds to Rios and his mother, Nancy Santiago, at the gala.
“It was very touching. We made it a complete surprise. Nobody knew we were going to make the presentation, not even Danny’s family. People were crying,” said Vega. “It’s so much more moving when you can actually see where your donations are going.”
In addition to volunteers and businesses in the community, Vega received support from the device’s manufacturer, which is now one of the foundation’s sponsors.
“Watching this foundation grow has been truly magical, and thanks to the kind heart and support of Daisy Vega, many lives will be changed for the better,” said Gary Viles, the Florida/Alabama rehabilitation sales specialist for Innovative Neurotronics, who often accompanies Vega when she makes presentations to groups.
“It’s my prayer that we will be able to bless someone else in 2014,” said Vega. “To give someone back their quality of life is such a joy.”
Foundation recipients for the WalkAide are chosen by a committee based on the recipient’s financial need and the viability of a WalkAide to help him or her, said Vega, who serves as the president of the foundation.
The group has already scheduled three fundraising events in the coming year, including another Zumbathon from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Feb. 8, at The Regent. The cost is $10 a person and $5 for a chance to win prizes.
The first Step by Step Walkathon will take place Saturday, May 3, at Lake Park in Lutz. The event will include a 5K run and a 1K walk. The fee is $25 per person or $40 per couple. Both Vega and Rios will participate.
And the foundation’s second annual gala is scheduled for Oct. 4.
Those interested in being sponsors for the Zumbathon or walkathon can contact Vega at (813) 546-2329 or [email protected]
To learn more about the Freedom to Walk Foundation and to register for the fundraisers, visit www.FreedomToWalkFoundation.com.
D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer who can be reached at [email protected]