Engineering medical miracles: Ephrem Takele Zewdie helps patients upgrade their own spines to regain the ability to walk

Ephrem Takele Zewdie is nothing short of amazing. Still only 25 years old, Zewdie is fundamentally transforming people’s lives by performing electro-medical miracles.
And yet he’s so humble and down-to-earth that he chats about his results with the casualness most people would reserve for discussing how they mowed the lawn.
Zewdie’s a doctoral student in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Alberta. And six years after arriving in Edmonton by way of Hong Kong and Ethiopia, he’s devoted himself to helping people overcome incomplete spinal cord breaks. 
When asked if he might, one day, help someone walk again, he responds calmly, “Actually, we’ve already helped a couple of people walk again. No, wait… three people.”
According to a study from the Rick Hansen Institute, about 4200 Canadians experience spinal cord injuries each year—about 42 per cent of which result from car accidents—and currently more than 85,000 Canadians live with the results. Aside from resulting psychological and family trauma, those injuries also cost the Canadian economy around $3.6 billion annually, about half that in direct medical costs.
Some people experience only partial severing of their spinal cords; their mobility loss in limbs and trunk can vary widely from loss of dexterity to loss of the ability to walk. Following post-injury spinal operations, patients may have to wait up to eight weeks to know their fate, because medical tests and surgery can leave tissues swollen or filled with fluid, thus disguising the full extent or even causes of their injuries. For many patients, the long wait is agonising.
But if Zewdie and his colleagues at the U of A’s Biomedical Engineering Department continue to succeed in their work, one day millions of people around the world could regain their mobility.


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