Thanks to an experimental device and a free clinic at Wingate University, a Monroe man is learning to walk again despite prolonged numbness in his feet.

Just a few years ago, Timothy Kelley spent his days off hitting blistering forehands and putting away volleys. The Monroe resident and a few buddies would rent a tennis court in Charlotte for up to six hours at a time, sometimes four days in a row.

Timothy Kelley does walking exercise at Wingate UniversityThen one morning Kelley woke up and couldn’t feel his feet. Kelley, a truck driver by trade, has not worked in the intervening three years. He suffers from peripheral neuropathy, a condition that afflicts many people who, like Kelley, have diabetes.

With neuropathy, “you don’t know where your feet are in space,” says Dr. Diane Wrisley, director of post-professional programs for Wingate University’s Department of Physical Therapy. “It’s like you’re walking with bricks on your legs.”

The numbness in his feet, coupled with diminished vision, makes it hard for the 51-year-old Kelley to walk around his house, much less pilot the 18-wheelers he drove for 31 years. He can’t even stand at the sink to wash dishes.

A device Kelley has been trying out at Wingate University is changing all that. Kelley is getting to use Walkasins, a device that alerts the brain as to which part of the foot is on the ground. From the moment he first inserted a set of the devices into his shoes and got to his feet, Kelley has been able to walk without assistance.

“As soon as I stood up and got both feet flat on the floor, it was a game-changer,” Kelley says with a huge grin.

First in the world

The device is essentially a modified sole insert that connects to a strap worn above the ankle. Sensors in the insert trigger vibrations in the strap that tell the wearer which part of the foot is bearing the person’s weight.

“The one on the front, when it vibrates, it lets me know that I’m on the ball of my foot,” Kelley says. “Wherever it vibrates, that’s where the pressure is.”

Kelley is the first person in the world to get to take a set of Walkasins home for his personal use. Until now, all testing had been done in the lab, mostly in Boston and Minneapolis, where the device’s inventor, Dr. Lars Oddsson, is based.

Walkasins device on footKelley is getting to try them out because of Oddsson’s professional relationship with Wrisley – and because of a group of Wingate students. Kelley is the beneficiary of a free clinic begun last fall as a capstone project by a quartet of second-year physical-therapy students. The students provide a clinic for people in the local community who need exercise similar to physical therapy but, like Kelley, don’t have health insurance or have maxed out their coverage.

“I started (at the clinic) last October, and when I got here, I could not walk,” Kelley says. “Literally could not walk. Couldn’t stand, couldn’t bend, couldn’t do any type of activity.”

After a couple of months, he was making steady progress. But Wrisley thought that there was more that Wingate’s DPT program could offer Kelley.

Wrisley had worked with Oddsson about a decade ago while she was an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, helping study the potential effects of the Walkasins device, and she’s been planning to do more research on it at Wingate. But she was prompted by Kelley’s plight to go ahead and arrange for him to use the Walkasins full-time.

“I knew we had these devices and I said, ‘You know, this might keep this man walking for a lot longer,’” Wrisley says. “His brain learned to use it immediately. I didn’t even have to do any training. He put them on and it was like, ‘Wow! I know where I am in space.’ His improvement is phenomenal.”

But don’t take Wrisley’s word for it.

“I put them on, and it was like a miracle,” Kelley says.

Learn more about Wingate’s Department of Physical Therapy.