Laing moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in February to take part in a major research study called The Big Idea at the University of Louisville. Five years ago this month, Laing sustained the spinal cord injury that would alter her life, going into the boards during a game for the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, on Dec. 31, 2015, as part of the 2016 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.
The Big Idea is a study that Roy supported Laing in joining, and that the Travis Roy Foundation helped fund with a $425,000 grant. Roy was a giant in the world of spinal cord injury victims after he sustained his own in 1995, 11 seconds into his first hockey game for Boston University.
Now, after Roy’s death Oct. 29 at age 45, Laing has decided that the best way to honor him, a person who did so much for those touched by spinal cord injuries, is to push forward. For her sake. For his.
“He has always been actively waiting for the research to catch up to a place where it would really benefit him and benefit us,” Laing said last month. “So I think that’s why it’s so important to do this research and make it available as quick as possible for a more general public. Because good people [that] have this pass away, waiting.”
Laing’s voice broke over the phone as she said this. Her mother, Jerilyn, who has moved to Louisville with her, jumped in.
“Travis was really supportive of Denna doing this research,” Jerilyn said. “He was really thankful and grateful that she was willing to put herself out there for the trial. It’s just hard to talk about.”
For almost five years, Laing has spent countless hours working on her own recovery, putting in thousands of miles on rowing machines, pushing herself day after day, much of that completed in her home base of Boston.
But this year the 29-year-old made the decision to relocate to Louisville for The Big Idea, a research initiative of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, to have an epidural stimulator implanted to help with blood pressure regulation and test its effectiveness on people with spinal cord injuries.
Her surgery was initially scheduled for March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, a day that she said she believed was lucky because of her Irish heritage. It turned out to be the day after Kentucky shut down all elective surgeries because of the coronavirus.
Laing stayed in Louisville and, on June 2, was first in line to have the device implanted.
According to The Big Idea website, “a stimulator is placed inside the body and wired to the spinal cord. The stimulator is controlled by a remote about the size of a smartphone. When the stimulator is on, commands such as ‘move my right leg’ result in movement. In a way, the electrical pulses are ‘awakening’ the nerve cells in the spinal cord.”
In Laing’s case, her spinal cord still works and still connects with her brain. The issue is a blocked point where the injury occurred.
“Everything from that point down should work, it’s just that the messages can’t get through,” Laing said. “So the point of the implanted stimulator is to try to hopefully get those messages past the blocked point.”
After a three-week recovery, Laing started on her portion of the trial, which tests different stimulation types like cardiovascular, voluntary movement and standing. Laing was placed in the cardiovascular group, which focuses on blood pressure regulation. She completed her 80 sessions as quickly as possible, being moved into the group with standing training just before Thanksgiving.
She wakes at 5:45 a.m. to get to the lab to do her training at 8:30. Each session is two hours long, and Laing aims to sit only for a few minutes halfway through, as trainers support her at the hips, knees and chest, as she depicted on a takeover of the Reeve Foundation’s Instagram account Dec. 1.
Before having the simulator implanted, Laing needed medicine to increase her blood pressure enough to allow her to stand. The medication is no longer needed.
“I increase the intensity of the stimulation to keep my blood pressure in a normal range,” she said. “Because my blood pressure is usually 80, 90, which is low. Normal blood pressure’s 120. So I run the risk of passing out or just getting dizzy or lightheaded.”
The hope is that the study will get the stimulators approved for general use, which Laing said would be “huge.” Some of those with spinal cord injuries can’t sit up without passing out, which necessitates medication or compression aids. If it works as intended, the stimulators could eliminate that need.
“When I’m using it and my blood pressure is in a normal range, you don’t realize how low it was and how low-energy you were before,” Laing said. “It’s just crazy to have a normal blood pressure, how big of a difference that makes. So it could easily make a big difference in a lot of people’s lives.”
It is going on five years since the injury, and Laing has had so many experiences since then, met so many people, been to so many places. She has completed the Boston Marathon, pushed in a racing wheelchair by former NHL player Bobby Carpenter to raise money. She has come a long way physically, gaining strength and control in her core and upper body, as small day-to-day improvements have added up over the years.
“It’s kind of crazy that it’s been five years, but I’m in a place that’s really on the forefront of the research for spinal cord injuries and hopefully I’m in a place that will help me move forward even more,” she said.
And not just her.
“This injury can be very lonely,” Laing said. “I’ve always felt like I’ve had a huge team behind me. But some people aren’t as lucky. And there’s more spinal cord injuries than you would think. Any way I can help even one person, I hope I will have the strength and the know-how to do so.”