Before April 2005, Connie Bemel of Camby, Oregon led what she called a normal life: family, part-time job as a hair stylist, involvement in her daughter's school.
"I drove a van. I was a soccer mom," Bemel said.
Then she had a stroke, joining the estimated 600,000 Americans each year who suffer neurological damage when blood flow to the brain is interrupted.
"It was kind of like I didn't want to try anymore," she said.
Bemel's speech was affected, and her right hand became curled and non-functioning.
"I couldn't lift my arm over my head, and I couldn't do my own hair," said Bemel.
Depression soon set in.
"A hairdresser without a right hand is not very good. I couldn't do anything, and I couldn't do me," she said.
A stay at a rehabilitation center, along with traditional outpatient therapy for stroke victims didn't help. Then Bemel heard about a clinical study conducted by Dr. Paul Cordo for what he called an AMES (Assisted Movement with Enhanced Sensation) device. It's a machine that combines assisted movement, vibration of specific muscles and tendons, and biofeedback as a way to help stroke victims regain function in arms and legs.
After six months, "I was making recovery so fast I couldn't believe it," she says in a testimonial video provided by AMES Technology Inc., Cordo's Portland-based startup company. After using the device for just two weeks, pre-stroke activities like cooking were back within her reach.
"I knocked something off the counter, and I bent down just like normal and without thinking, I grabbed it with my right hand," she said. "That was a turning point. It felt so good..it felt like hope."
Bemel is one of 300 victims of stroke and spinal cord injuries who have participated in six clinical studies for the AMES device.
"I would say about half to 70 percent of the people who participated in those studies got better," Cordo said.
Last year AMES Technology received FDA clearance to market and sell the device. The company was also awarded a patent for its technology. Now Cordo and his funding partners are working on the fourth generation of the device that can be marketed to hospitals and rehabilitation facilities. Right now third-generation machines are in use in Portland and Atlanta.
The device is the result of nearly two decades' worth of research and development by Cordo, much of it done while working as a professor at Oregon Health and Science University.
Cordo refers to the device as a "toolkit" for therapists. "I think that some of these tools that we have are actually available individually," he said. "What we've done is bring them together into a treatment that within a relatively normal period of time, we can be affecting these impairments."
The AMES device helped Connie Bemel enough to enable her to not only style her own hair, but that of her customers at her full-time job.
"Recovery has been so fast, I never thought I'd be able to go back to work again, and I can," she said. "There's hope now."