When Nicole Tassone was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she was determined it wouldn't be the end of her life. She would still go to her two boys' sporting events. She would still exercise. She would still live her life as close to normal as possible.
But she started having issues with foot drop, a condition where her left leg doesn't properly lift her foot, often causing her to trip and fall. She started to dread uneven surfaces -- beaches, fields, gravel driveways. She even had difficulty walking to the mailbox at her Hilton Head Plantation house.
But she didn't want multiple sclerosis, a disease that affects the central nervous system, to control her. With a little help from some new technology, she's gotten better.
Tassone uses the NESS L300, an electronic device that helps her overcome foot drop. The system from the Bioness company consists of a cuff that wraps just below her knee and a small transmitter in the shoe. As Tassone walks, the system sends electronic signals that stimulate the nerves that help her lift her foot.
The NESS L300 is one of several products on the market, including the WalkAide by Innovative Neurotronics, that rely on electronic stimulation for those with foot drop. It's frequently used to help patients recovering from a stroke, brain or spinal chord injury or those suffering from Parkinson's disease or MS, as long as they don't have severe mobility issues.
The price tag is about $6,500 for the NESS L300, and Tassone's insurance didn't help with the cost. Private insurance coverage for the technology varies by insurer on a case-by-case basis. But the system and those like it provide an alternative to the clunky plastic or metal braces that can also be used to alleviate foot drop, said Laura Baird, a physical therapist with HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Charleston, where Tassone receives treatment.
"You can just go," she said. "Custom-made braces can be heavy. The lighter weight the better."
The cuff wraps around Tassone's leg, easily hidden under a dress. She still uses a cane for balance, but she can move without it. It's a marked improvement from where she once was.
Tassone first thought something was wrong when she fell playing tennis at Haig Point in 2002. After three years of misdiagnosis, she was told she had MS at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. She was used to being active, but MS challenged her previous lifestyle. Primarily, it affected her movement and energy. She started walking with a cane or riding on a motorized scooter. She came across Bioness in the waiting room at her doctor's Atlanta office. She picked up a pamphlet and knew it was for her.
With the Bioness system, she exercises three times a week -- a key to building strength to prevent muscle deterioration. She volunteers frequently with the Italian American Club of Hilton Head Island. She goes to her sons' games without worries of tripping on the uneven earth. The former fashion merchandiser has started her own line of canes, dressing up the shafts in colorful fabrics.
It all goes back to her prior commitment to never let the disease get her down.
"You just keep on moving," she said. "You have to make it upbeat and cheery. It's not a death sentence."