Cristy Wang: Feeling the Joy with Each Step

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Ask someone what their most treasured gift is, and you’ll receive a wide range of answers: a necklace, a guitar, a car, a camera—gifts of all shapes and sizes. For example, Cristy Wang’s most treasured gift is battery operated and about the size of a deck of playing cards. It’s not an iPhone or an iPod or any other “must-have,” latest-and-greatest gadget. Rather, it’s a WalkAide by Innovative Neurotronics, Austin, Texas.

In August 2007, at the age of 50, Wang was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Among other MS-related symptoms, she says the foot drop she experiences is her biggest challenge because, left untreated, it limits her even within her own home. The WalkAide, which straps below her left knee on the affected side, is the orthotic device that she says best suits her lifestyle and has allowed her to regain some of the mobility she thought was lost.

Cristy Wang

Photograph courtesy of Cristy Wang

Missed Diagnosis

In March 2007, Wang fell in the parking lot of one of the two hospitals at which she worked as the director of cardiopulmonary services. When people fall, many instinctively use their hands to take the brunt of the impact. Wang’s hands didn’t function properly, and she wasn’t able to break her fall. “There was forward momentum since I was walking, so…my face got pretty scratched up as I skidded across the sidewalk,” she says. A CT-scan and x-rays came back negative for broken bones, so she was treated for the pain and sent home.

Two weeks later, she was back at the doctor’s office, this time because she was experiencing a lot of numbness and tingling, as well as sharp pains and coldness all over her body. “My doctor… just thought that I was having [back] spasms, so he gave me some medicine,” she says. Although the medicine provided temporary relief, her condition worsened. “Over the course of about five months, my symptoms became more profound,” she recalls. “I had neuropathy, pins and needles, my walking gait changed. The doctors took more and more blood tests and gave me medications to address my symptoms.” A diagnosis was not coming easily. Armed with a clinical background, Wang says she searched the Internet for an answer. “I thought it was fibromyalgia,” she says. “I thought it was diabetic neuropathy, but all the tests showed that I wasn’t diabetic. I saw a neurologist and he thought maybe I had restless leg syndrome, and that wasn’t it. So I asked to have an MRI, and on that MRI it showed that I have a lot of demyelination.” (Author’s note: Demyelination, the major underlying factor responsible for MS symptoms, is the destructive removal of myelin, an insulating and protective fatty protein that sheaths nerve cells, or neurons. The myelin increases the speed at which nerve signals move down the axons, thus demyelination slows down nerve impulses.)

Wang received her diagnosis in August 2007 and started treatment—medication to manage and slow the progression of MS—the following month.

Searching for Solutions

The treatment, however, did not stop the progression of her symptoms. For example, Wang’s foot drop became more pronounced during the following year. “I was pretty much dragging my foot,” she says. I was using a walker. I was using a cane. My chief medical officer at the primary hospital I worked at saw that I was struggling getting from office to office, and he actually purchased a scooter for me…. That was a very, very kind gesture on his part.” Despite having a scooter to maneuver her surroundings, Wang eventually had to leave her job. While a good portion of her position was as “an administrator behind a desk,” her job description also included respiratory care practitioner duties. The MS-related fatigue she experienced prevented her from performing that duty at the required level. “It was unfortunate,” she says.

Dealing with foot drop was even worse. She explains that she was unable to climb the stairs in the two-story home she shares with her husband Peter, and routine activities, such as walking from one room to the other, attending church, or going to family events were challenging and tiresome. “I felt that even if I could get out of bed and do this routine stuff—to go from bed to the bathroom, to drag my foot—it almost was like, ‘this is a horrible life.’ Besides the MS, this thing with my foot was just one more added thing to deal with.”

Just as Wang had taken to the Internet to find a diagnosis and advocate for her own healthcare, this time Peter took time off from the cooking, cleaning, caretaking, and gardening duties he had assumed, and researched the Internet for solutions to address Wang’s foot drop. He found the Bioness, Valencia, California, system first, but because Wang often wears slippers or walks around the house barefoot, the two-piece system didn’t suit her. An AFO was not a good solution for the same reason. After further investigation, Peter found the WalkAide system and Paul Racette, a WalkAide-trained practitioner and practice manager of the Ontario, California, Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics patient care facility.

The Gift

“When we talked about Cristine’s background and what she was looking for, we felt like [the WalkAide] was going to be a good fit if it worked for her,” Racette says, explaining that sometimes functional electrical stimulation (FES) mobility aides do not work well because of a lack of sensitivity to the stimulation. “Once we got the electrodes placed correctly, we were able to get her up and walking.”

“I was just so ecstatic, I was practically in tears,” Wang says of the first time she tried the device, adding that she appreciates how Racette educated her and her husband about the use and workings of the WalkAide throughout the fitting and fine-tuning process. “I was walking up and down the hallway…and I climbed the stairs without hesitating…. ‘Take that first step and feel the joy,’ that’s how I felt.”

Her joy was diminished when she got the news that her insurance company had denied coverage of the device. But once again, Peter intervened, and for Wang, Christmas came a little early in 2009. Peter insisted on buying the device for Wang, despite the insurance denial.

“I’m just so blessed having [the WalkAide],” Wang says. “It has opened a lot of opportunities for me to feel better about myself.” One of those opportunities was being able to complete a one-kilometer walk during the 2010 MS Walk in her hometown of Rancho Cucamonga, California. “That was pretty spectacular,” Racette says. He and his office staff also attended the event. “A patient like Cristine really makes my job easy because she has the motivation…. She can do whatever she wants, and she’s proven that over and over.”

While Wang continues to experience other MS-related issues, having regained mobility has allowed her to again tend her rose garden and go on “short walks” with her husband or dogs, which in turn has improved her outlook. “I can go shopping holding my husband’s hand, and I don’t have to rely on my walker or be pushed in my wheelchair,” she says. “In April, we were able to do a hot air balloon ride. I was able to climb into the hot air balloon…. The WalkAide helps me enjoy some things that maybe if I didn’t have this device it would have limited me. It makes all the difference…and I’m happier for it.

“I have MS,” she says, “but MS does not have me.”

Laura Hochnadel can be reached at

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