News Release: Emory Healthcare , School of Medicine

Oct. 3,  2011

Unique Drug/Robotic Therapy Helps Aspiring Young Artist Regain Control of His Life

ATLANTA - At the young age of 22, Spencer Telligman was living a typical college student's life attending Kennesaw State University, majoring in ceramics and 3-D sculpture, and hoping to teach art one day himself. One thing he didn’t foresee in his future was the unthinkable at that age - a stroke that would rob him of his ability to do what he loved best.

“The thought of him not being able to express himself creatively was taking half of his life away,” said his mother, Didi Heagerty. “To not be able to do the two things he loved the most broke our hearts.”

Less than a year after his stroke, however, Spencer Telligman has made tremendous progress in restoring his hand functions thanks to a study being conducted at the Emory Center for Rehabilitation Medicine, which Spencer and his family  hope will one help him to paint and sculpt again.

For his parents though, giving their all to help their son recover is not enough. They want others to know about the risk of young adults having strokes and how to respond if it happens.

“Up until it happened to my son I had no idea what a person or family goes through,” said Robert Telligman, Spencer’s father. “Now I know.”

Spencer’s stroke was triggered by a hemorrhage in his brain. On Jan. 5, Didi Heagerty said she sensed something was wrong when Spencer failed to answer her phone calls. His father returned to his apartment to find Spencer paralyzed.

“I walked into the apartment and found him on the floor,” Telligman recalled. “I think that’s about the hardest thing I’ve ever done—mentally, emotionally. I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone.”

Heagerty and Telligman called 911, and Spencer was rushed to the hospital where doctors determined he was experiencing a stroke. He underwent a hemicraniectomy in order to reduce the swelling of his brain.

“We were told on the day of his stroke that his chances of survival were not good…[and] that there was a increased chance he would have additional multiple strokes” Heagerty said.

“We were told there could be severe cognitive damage or paralysis, and that we would not know how much Spencer would progress until Spencer had made progress.” Doctors warned that even with in-house rehabilitation programs, he may not become fully independent again.

But Heagerty and Telligman’s faith went unscathed. “We went in from the first day saying, ‘You will recover,’ and he has done wonders since then,” Heagerty said.

Two months after his stroke, Spencer underwent reconstructive surgery to repair his skull, but he still had movement limitations. The nerve cells in his brain had been damaged, causing total paralysis of his body’s right side and the inability to speak.

 “When Spencer first came to us, we knew that there was really nice room for improvement,” said Dr. Andrew J. Butler, PT,PhD, an associate professor of rehabilitation medicine who is leading the research study on ways to improve upper limb movement in people who have had a stroke.

As part of the study, Spencer underwent three weeks of robotic –assisted therapy in combination with taking a pharmacological agent that may improve learning in his brain, Butler said. The therapy consists of a series of games performed on a computer with a robotic device that guides the patient’s hand as needed.

“The robotic device fits over a person’s arm, and the games challenge the person to move their arm,” Butler said. “If they cannot move at all, the robot will help them 100 percent. As they learn, the robot will decrease the amount of help as the person increases their effort.”

The games range from levels zero to 10 and increase in difficulty as they progress. The ultimate goal of the robotic therapy is to remove the robotic device, enabling the patient to move his or her arm independently.

Doctors didn’t expect for Spencer to reach level 10  on  the games, but he did

“He began to experience spontaneous use his hand…for gesturing,” Butler said. “These are things most of us take for granted, but when a person has a stroke and limb impairment like Spencer has, he really doesn’t have that ability.”

“From the first day in this program until today, it’s been like 150 percent improvement,” said Spencer’s father. “As an artist, it was really important for him to be able to pick up a paintbrush or a pastel again.”

“The work with the robot has given Spencer the confidence he has needed to see that his brain can communicate with his hand and follow instructions,” said Heagerty. “It is the strongest precursor Spencer has shown to date to indicate he is ready to pick up his pastels or a block of clay and creating something.”

Spencer agreed that he has come a long way but is still a work in progress. “I’ve just been taking it one day at a time,” he said. “That’s all I can do.”

Of reaching level 10 , Spencer said he feels good. “I’m going to have to retrain my arm, my hand to do everything,” but he knows he can one day be an artist again.

His parents don’t doubt that his family support has helped him recover. “First and foremost, tell your child that you love him,” said Spencer’s father. “Let them know you believe in them, that you’re there for them, and that you love them, no matter what.

“Spencer knowing that both of us are behind him and love him very much enables him to keep going,” his father said. And that has made all the difference.

For more information on stroke rehabilitation options, the rehabilitation research study and other treatment options available to stroke patients, please visit Emory University School of Medicine’s Department of Rehabilitation Medicine website at


The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University is an academic health science and service center focused on missions of teaching, research, health care and public service.

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Twitter: @emoryhealthsci

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