Take a Deep Breath

A new machine is helping ALS patients breathe easier.
A new machine is helping ALS patients breathe easier.

Mary Pat Murray has lived with ALS for more than four years. Checkups are not just routine for her, they can be lifesaving.

Traditionally, patients like Mary would use a BiPAP machine to help her breathe. She'd wear a mask, tethered to a ventilator. It would force air into Mary's lungs.

Now, Mary is the first ALS patient at The Ohio State University to be implanted with a diaphragmatic pacing system to help her strengthen her muscles.

"It feels like a really hard hiccup at first and then eventually you get used to it," Mary told Ivanhoe.

The external device sends electrical signals to the nerve that controls the diaphragm, replacing signals normally sent by the brain telling it to expand and retract.

"All she needs to do when she is ready at night is to turn that on and it'll begin to help to contract the diaphragm as she's breathing," Stephen J. Kolb, MD, PhD, Co-Director, ALS/MND Clinic, Department of Neurology, The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Ivanhoe.

The DPS conditions the muscle while Mary sleeps.

"This gives us another tool in our tool belt where we can maybe engage the motor-neurons in the diaphragm; maybe allow the diaphragm to maintain strength longer in ALS, and improve quality of life and lifespan, so it's very exciting," Dr. Kolb said.

In just six months, Mary says she's felt a difference.

"I can carry on a conversation. I can eat. I can drink," Mary explained.

She is thankful for the technology that allows her to do what most of us take for granted.

Thirty thousand Americans are living with ALS right now. Next year the device will be part of a multi-clinic study to determine if DPS actually helps ALS patients live longer in addition to breathing easier.