Story originally appeared on Mercury News.
SAN JOSE -- Albert Azizian had used a wheelchair to get around for more than a decade after suffering a debilitating stroke. When he did walk, a good day was making it from one room to another, dragging his right leg.
But Sunday morning, Azizian stood tall and took confident steps at the Fight Stroke Walk. Wearing a new assistive device called the Kickstart Walking System, Azizian proudly strode a half mile around the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden.
"I couldn't do this a year ago," said Azizian, 60, of Milpitas, with a wide smile. "There's been so much improvement. I'm walking so much more now."
Azizian and Redwood City's Donna Jang used the annual event to show off a device that has helped them regain a level of independence both thought had been gone forever. But all 650 participants who gathered on the cool morning to raise $135,000 for the Santa Clara County-based Stroke Awareness Foundation had been struck by the malady to some degree.
Some were survivors. Others were walking for someone who no longer cannot.
Nearly 800,000 Americans each year suffer a stroke -- which occurs when blood flow to the brain suddenly is interrupted. It is the country's No. 4 cause of death. But there also are an estimated 7 million stroke survivors in the U.S., and about two-thirds of them are disabled.
"Most people know someone who has had a stroke," said Pamela W. Duncan, a stroke researcher and professor of neurology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. "And while stroke can be devastating, most people suffer mild ones. It's not just grandma always ending up in the nursing home. People do regain their lives."
Tough but effective
But rehabilitation therapy can be a grueling process. Consider Azizian, who in 2000 had a stroke so severe that doctors initially thought it would take his life.
"I refused to die," said Azizian, a former engineer who has an infectiously cheerful demeanor. "I had more life to live. Eventually I started getting better, but it didn't come overnight."
It took two years to relearn how to speak. Initially paralyzed throughout the right side of his body, it would be five years before he could move his arm or stand. For the last 11 years, Azizian has gotten around largely by wheelchair because his right leg was incapable of a normal stepping motion.
Because he ended up with significant weakness in his hip flexor muscle, Azizian was a good candidate for the Kickstart system, said Brian Glaister, co-founder of Seattle-based Cadence Biomedical.
"It's a common story with stroke survivors," Glaister added. "You go through therapy and you make good progress. But everybody plateaus at some point, and that's often because of the hip flexor."
The custom-fitted device resembles a leg brace and was designed to be low-tech with no motor, battery or electrical parts. It functions with a spring, pulley and cable system. The spring stretches and briefly stores energy when the wearer begins a step, and then it's released to help lift the leg and propel it forward for a more natural stride.
"When they told me they have something that might help me walk, I said, 'I would do anything to walk again. Anything!' " Azizian recalled. "When you're stuck in a wheelchair, you can feel sad because you can't do many of the things you want. ... Now, I can lift my leg better so I can walk."
About three dozen of the Kickstart systems are in use so far, and Glaister said the cost varies depending on how much medical insurance will cover.
Wake Forest's Duncan said while there has been promising results for an array of assistive systems -- ranging from robotic devices to electrical stimulation of muscles -- there is not yet overwhelming evidence which ones will be helpful for most stroke survivors.
"But getting people up and working is the key," she added. "So giving patients the support they need to do that is important because research has shown very clearly that you can experience recovery after a stroke. A product like this has a place when someone needs to activate the leg and assist them to move forward."
Jang is sold. An angel investor, she has put money into the company. She suffered her stroke in 1992 and used a Segway to get around for the last five years. But now she has begun taking ballroom dancing lessons with her husband.
"We're doing the cha-cha," said Jang, 61. "I never thought I was going to dance again. Most stroke victims forget how to dream big."
Sunday, though, Jang and Azizian walked together and frequently heard encouragement from other participants.
"Pretty good, don't you think?" said Azizian, beaming.