Bionic Athlete on Spinal Cord Injury and Overheating

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Meet Johnny Beer – the bionic cyclist who tells us about his problems with his spinal cord injury and overheating. With better temperature regulation he could cycle a 25k in June.

Back in 2011, I had a trampoline accident after attempting a backflip. It resulted in a C4/C5 injury which meant I became tetraplegic losing movement in all four limbs. Fortunately, I regained partial movement of my arms, although I do still have a lot of trouble with my hands.

Pushing Boundaries with the Berkelbike

I have always been proactive, even before my accident I was exercising daily. After breaking my neck, it became apparent that a lot of the exercises I used to do were in fact, not possible. My new regime not only includes weightlifting and yoga, but also FES (Functional Electrical Stimulation). 

My interest in electrocuting specific muscle groups in the body led me to the Berkelbike.  This fantastic, modified FES bike allows me to use a combination of my legs with my arms. The arm cycle means I can assist my legs if needed. Stimulating sticky electrodes on my main muscle groups (glutes, quads, hamstrings) builds muscle in my legs. Even though I can’t move my legs yet, this keeps me fit.

I can actually gain muscle in my legs which reduces the chance of developing pressure sores. It’s the equivalent of an able-bodied person going for a run and I believe it’s critical for well-being after obtaining a spinal cord injury.

There are many other devices that use FES technology, but I feel that they lack the ergonomics that Rik Berkelmans (Inventor) included in the Berkelbike design. I am complemented every single day, people don’t know I’m disabled. Not even the disabled know I’m disabled: “Does that mean I can ride it?” — yes it does! That’s the thing, it doesn’t look medical and why should it?

Winning Silver at the first ever Cybathlon

I was recently given the opportunity to compete in the Cybathlon, commonly known as ‘The Bionic Games’ in Zurich. After asking past Paralympian Paul Moore if racing Berkelbikes would be feasible, it soon became a reality within 1 year.

During the FES bike race. I was delighted to place second using a stripped down version of the Berkelbike with just legs alone. Bloomberg followed us for 2 days straight, it felt very invasive but it was worth it because the video they made was brilliant.

It was very difficult because of the technical changes that were made the previous day. We were unsure whether the modifications would actually work, but they did. I halved my track time and secured a silver medal, my efforts paid off!

Not overheating is a constant battle

After my injury, I lost the ability to sweat from head to toe. I can’t sweat! So, when training for the race, I had a lot of trouble maintaining temperature. When in direct sunlight, my skin gets very, very hot because I have no sweat on my skin to evaporate. This eventually raises my body temperature resulting in heat stroke like symptoms that could literally fry my brain.

E.g. My mouth feels like a desert, eyes feel dry and my head starts throbbing. Drinking water doesn’t help cool me down, you just feel like exploding and taking unnecessary trips to the toilet.

In winter, it’s a different story. Parts of my body can get cold without my knowledge which triggers a shiver response. My teeth chatter and it will not go away for a few hours until my body has been warmed up. You would think the solution would be to wear more layers… but that’s also complicated. I could equally become too hot because I’m wearing too many clothes. In this case, I can’t instantly cool down, which zaps all my energy and spoils my day.

Finding the balance between hot and cold is a constant battle for me. I’m sure there are many other people out there that have similar problems with temperature regulation.

Going over the limit almost killed me

One day, I was out on the track, training before the Cybathlon. After completing a 2 x 750m with rest in-between, I cycled home (1-2miles) without rest. Then the heat from exercising combined with the sun suddenly hit me. I used a spray bottle to try and cool down but it didn’t work. I was worried that I may not make it home. To my relief, I eventually made it back. But I was debilitated and had to lie on my back for 2 hours with a fan pointing directly at me.

Even though I cooled down, the heat stroke symptoms didn’t disappear and I had to have a cold shower. This has happened more than once, it isn’t a pleasant experience.

Could WheelAir® enable me to cycle further than ever before?

Although not always to this extreme, this happens regularly. It is impeding my ability to train. I want to compete in the local Tour De Vale bike ride, but to do this I need to cycle 25km. It takes place on the 11th of June – so it will be almost impossible unless I have a method of cooling.

Hopefully using the WheelAir® will enable me to finish the ride without taking too many risks. I’m yet test it out but I’m positive that this is the way forward. Even if it doesn’t work first time round, this could be a important factor for winning at the next Cybathlon.

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