Subscribe for 17¢ / day

Barry Morris may feel like he's celebrating Independence Day more than Thanksgiving right now.

Or, perhaps, a little bit of both.

New technology has allowed Morris, who has suffered from multiple sclerosis for the past 30 years, to hold his head higher when he walks.

Due to his MS, Morris has suffered from foot drop for a decade. Foot drop is the inability to raise the front of the foot due to weakness or paralysis. When a person with foot drop walks, the foot tends to slap the floor. To avoid dragging his toes along the ground, the person may lift the foot higher and display a "tip-toe" walk.

Morris uses a walker and was basically down in a hunched position to compensate for his foot drop, explained Heather Watts, a physical therapist at St. Vincent Healthcare's outpatient rehabilitation center.

But a few weeks ago, Morris was introduced to technology that has made a huge difference in his life. The Bioness "Ness" L300 is an electrical stimulation system to help patients move in a gait that is closer to normal.

"This is kind of an old therapy in a new way," Watts said.

Electrodes inside a cuff Morris wears around his calf work with a sensor in his shoe. Watts uses a separate device similar to an electronic organizer to program settings such as when the heel pushes off the ground.

"I can use this to pull up the history and tell how many steps he's taking," Watts said. "It works up to 6 miles an hour, which is a pretty good clip."

Watts said the Bioness system was introduced within the past year. Older systems had some success, but they had cumbersome wires and weren't as effective.

In the case of Morris, Watts can see a functional difference.

"It is cool. Just in his function there's been a huge change," she said. "His standing and getting around has improved. This allows him to do so much more than he used to."

Morris still tears up when he talks about his new mobility.

"I tell everyone about this, and they are amazed," he said. "This is just as good as people getting artificial limbs."

Morris was introduced to this latest technology when St. Vincent Healthcare recently partnered with Bioness Inc. The Billings hospital now serves as a regional evaluation and treatment site for patients interested in trying out the L300.

The Bioness system can assist with a broad range of conditions besides multiple sclerosis. It can help patients of stroke, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy and certain spinal cord injuries.

Morris' health insurance covered some of the cost of his L300, but he estimated the full cost to be between $6,200 and $6,500.

To Morris, who has a wife and two college-age kids in town, it's worth every penny.

"Barry has been so excited to get this and work with it," Watts said. "Now he's using the right muscles to move better.

"And it helps him conserve his energy, too. He's not fighting every single step of the way."