The Ingenious Inventions of a Paraplegic Athlete

Two of us on a hot summer day, we stop in a pub on the way home from work-lots of beer,” recalls Jaimie Borisoff. “Neither of us wearing seat belts.” The pickup went off River Road in Delta and smashed into a telephone pole, launching the driver to his death. Borisoff escaped with barely a mark (“I just kind of rattled around inside”)-except, as one witness described it, a 180º twist of his torso.

That was 23 years ago. Borisoff, 19 at the time, could barely take in the days that followed; his memories of that time are vague, fleeting images of family members reeling from the news: fractured sternum and Thoracic 4 vertebrae. “You’re told early on that you have a broken back and you’re not going to walk again,” he says. At the time of the accident, he couldn’t-wouldn’t-accept the diagnosis. “As a kid who played a lot of sports and broke a lot of bones, I thought of it as just another injury.” Within six months he was back at UBC with a full course load and a new competitive sport: wheelchair basketball, learned during his convalescence at G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre. But life was becoming complex. “I can vividly remember the analytical process: how do you move your body, how do I go into a restaurant and transfer into a booth, how am I going to get out of this booth,” he says.

Three years later, emotional reserves drained, Borisoff reached a low point. That initial diagnosis, he realized, was immutable: “This is what life is.” How could he live a full life, rather than merely exist? He found the answer in academia. Following a BSc in engineering physics, Borisoff got a PhD in neuroscience, studying spinal cord development and regeneration. The logical conclusion of this path: pursuing the holy grail of spinal cord injury research, finding a cure. That’s when he had a flash of self-knowledge: “I’m not a cell biologist; I’m an engineer.” That’s how he would be able to work on enhancing his quality of life, playing sports, getting into a car, and being independent. And he would do it all by becoming his own guinea pig.

In the following decade, Borisoff embraced the business side of disability, becoming president of Instinct Mobility, which markets his patented invention, the Elevation wheelchair. The chair seat moves up and down and changes angles, enabling the user to, for example, pluck items off a shelf. Why hadn’t such a thing already been invented? “I don’t know; I hear that a lot,” he says. He is also a Canada Research Chair, received a QEII Diamond Jubilee Medal earlier this year for his contributions to sport and research, and (thanks to a $125,000 grant) is working at BCIT on a prototype staircase for wheelchairs that would replace the ubiquitous switchback ramp. Too, he’s just starting conceptual designs for a wheelchair that would morph into a sleek exoskeleton, allowing users to stand upright and even climb stairs. The idea is not new-exoskeletons exist in research laboratories and are used therapeutically-but “those things are utter crap,” he says. “Go to YouTube and see how ridiculously slow and cumbersome they are. They are not going to improve my quality of life in terms of daily activity and being mobile and picking my son up from daycare and doing life.”

For three years at Vancouver’s Neil Squire Society Brain Interface Laboratory, he worked on paraplegics’ sexual health. Spinal cord injuries often spell the end of sexual pleasure and orgasm, although desire is not diminished. Borisoff theorized that a possible therapy lay in the field of sensory substitution, whereby a device translates stimuli specific to one sensory area (appreciation of touch, for example, lost below the damage of a spinal cord injury) to another, intact one (in this study, feeling on the tongue). Recruiting male paraplegics aged 34 to 51, he fitted a common research tool called the BrainPort tongue stimulator into the mouth with an upper plate orthotic. “The tongue is a very dense map of sensory neurons and easy to electrically stimulate,” he says. Participants would stroke their penis, and the BrainPort, which was connected to the rest of the device, would create complementary real-time electrotactile stimulation on the tongue. “Subjects could perceive rhythmic up-and-down hand stroking as a flowing motion back and forth on the tongue.” By perceiving the tongue as a proxy for the penis, the brain may be able to begin remapping or rewiring itself, creating neural pathways and ultimately registering stimulation to the penis. Test subjects were interviewed following each session. There were many negative responses but some “pleasurable sensations” as well as “engaging and enjoyable” feelings, Borisoff wrote in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2010. The study ceased when funds dried up, but he believes it has potential and would like to resume studies. (The test subjects also said that they would happily take the device home for more practice.)

In the heart of Langley farm country sits Trinity Western University, where two wheelchair basketball teams are warming up by doing lay-ups in the gym. Seated, the players are half the height of able-bodied athletes but make baskets with ease, manoeuvring their custom-made, $5,000 sports chairs in tight spirals like figure skaters. Borisoff, in a black fleece warm-up jacket, stands out. His turns are effortless, his passing swift and precise. The ball seems to jump into his hand like it’s magnetized as he dribbles across the polished floor. He’s one of the old guard point guards, having represented Canada for 13 years on the international stage as an all-star world champion and four-time Paralympian (two golds, one silver). “I was a starter on the best team in the world for a lot of years-that’s something to be proud of, I think.”

Retired from international competition, he’s here not only for exercise but to set the bar for up-and-coming athletes like burly Langley local Justin Johnson, who is poised to join the Canadian junior team this year. In wheelchair basketball, opponents’ pain is your gain. Competitors crash and topple, limbs twist, joints slam into the floor, hands blister from wheeling. One player grabs an opponent’s jersey as his chair topples, ensuring that both hit the floor in a tangle of metal. “Hey, ref!” coach Tim Frick protests at the obvious foul. “Didn’t see it!” the referee shouts back.

Watching in the stands are Borisoff’s mother and father, John and Sharon. Small and slender, Sharon shoulders the universal burden of motherhood: worry over the next, inevitable war wound. She recounts her son’s injuries: a twice-fractured right hand that now has a steel plate in it, stitches to the head, and a recently broken rib. “I still have flashbacks,” she says, referring to the accident. “It was devastating.” But the upheaval led, she points out, to extraordinary successes.

Carrie Linegar, who is the managing director of the BC Wheelchair Basketball Society, first met Borisoff on the court. Four years younger than her future husband, she took up wheelchair basketball-despite being able-bodied-to support a friend and fellow athlete whose blown knees precluded running or jumping. (In Canada, able-bodied athletes can join wheelchair basketball at the club and provincial levels.) A former wheelchair basketball coach, she believes Borisoff’s success with the sport was due in part to his engineering acumen. Since he has no control over his trunk muscles, he was constantly adjusting his “positioning, making small changes to enhance his performance,” enabling him to outmanoeuvre more able opponents. “This critical thinking and creativity is prevalent in all aspects in his life,” she says. When son Evan, now four, was born, Borisoff reconfigured the crib by attaching a gas spring and pivot so that its front wall rotated up and to the side like the door of a Lamborghini. He also created a lap strap that connected to his chair, allowing father and son to go wheeling. (The couple just had their second son.)

His inventions, Borisoff is quick to stress, are nurtured in the rich soil of research and public awareness first tilled by a small but remarkable group of Vancouver men. He points to Neil Squire Society executive director and engineer Gary Birch (whom he first worked under while a post-doc student), Rick Hansen, Terry Fox, and former mayor Sam Sullivan. Hansen himself sees Borisoff as heir to Vancouver’s legacy as a centre of excellence for social and technological advances for the disabled. “Borisoff’s success in athletics, in life, and in his drive to innovate come from his unique convergence of characteristic qualities: he is an intelligent human being, curious, and applies his intellect and curiosity to create solutions,” Hansen says. “He is determined, and has honed skills that have come from addressing his disability through clinical and academic pursuits.”

High praise made more meaningful by its source. Days after the accident, as Jaimie Borisoff lay in hospital, it was his 10-year-old sister Danielle who lighted upon a sprig amidst the sorrow. “She was very upset and concerned, but then she put two and two together. She said: ‘Everything is okay. He’ll be just like Rick Hansen. That’s not so bad.'”