Silvalea Ruest grimaces as Ken Bryant bends and pushes her right leg toward her. He asks her to push back with the leg, and she does. They repeat the exercise with the left leg.
Later, Bryant uses his thumb and a little lotion to rub various points on her bare feet, stimulating nerves that Ruest, 62, says she feels running up her legs.
Since she has been coming to Bryant's modest Largo home for these treatments, Ruest says she has achieved something her doctors said was impossible: She can move her legs and feel sensation where there has been none since an accident that left her paralyzed from below the diaphragm 21 years ago.
Her next goal?
"To walk," Ruest says. "It's such a sweet thought now."
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Ken Bryant knows what all the skeptics say.
How can he, a 38-year-old legally blind licensed massage therapist and certified reflexologist, bring feeling back to the paralyzed bodies of Ruest and the dozens of other people who come to him seeking help and hope?
Bryant calls his method neuro synthetic conduction therapy, which he says involves manually manipulating nerve endings on the bottom of the feet with his thumb, using lotion as a conductor. He says his clients feel electrical impulses that run up their lower extremities and to different parts of their body.
So far, none of his clients is walking independently, but several say they've gained enough feeling and movement with Bryant that their lives have improved.
His technique may sound like reflexology, but though Bryant is licensed in that field, he says what he does with his paralyzed clients is not reflexology.
He has no scientific studies to prove his methods and no physicians to back him.
"I don't know that there's any evidence that stimulating the foot does anything to regain function in someone who is paralyzed, nor do I understand how physiologically that could help," said Dr. Lara W. Katzin, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of South Florida who specializes in neuromuscular diseases.
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Bryant says his technique restores at least some feeling or movement "100 percent of the time." He furnished the Times with a list of 26 clients willing to vouch for him. Among them is Tracy Rigler, 43, of Largo, paralyzed from below the chest after a diving accident in 2007.
"I thought he was crazy," Rigler said of his first contact with Bryant two years ago.
But Rigler talked to his doctors, who told him as long as the treatment was noninvasive, it wouldn't hurt. "One told me that worst case scenario is you get a foot massage out of it."
Fourteen months later, Rigler says he can feel hot and cold at the bottom of his feet, move his toes and his feet, and walk in a swimming pool.
Ruest remembers thinking, "I'll believe it when I see it," when she first met Bryant at the St. Petersburg YMCA two months ago.
On her first visit, as Bryant began working on her feet, Ruest said she felt something she had not felt for more than two decades.
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Dr. Kevin Creed had noticed some improvements in Ruest. "She demonstrated some trace movements in the hips and thigh that she wasn't able to do before," he said, but added that could be attributed to a number of factors, including her own effort.
But it made him curious enough to pay Bryant a visit. They talked, and he watched some videos of Bryant working with clients.
"I told him you're not going to get any doctor to back you unless there's science behind it," said Creed, whose work as a physiatrist involves rehabilitating patients with paralysis and brain injuries.
"If he ends up doing any research or clinical trials, I would be interested to read about it," he added. "Until then, I'm not going to endorse what he's doing, and I can't refer people to that kind of treatment."
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Bryant says it would be nice to gain official acceptance. "I would like to have the medical community behind me, so I'm not seen as a snake-oil salesman," he said.
But Bryant also says he'd rather spend his time working with people. He has visited patients at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa and recently spent a week in Virginia working with four people with paralysis.
"If it's benefiting the community, then that's all that matters," he said.
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Bryant has been working with disabled people for many years. He worked in recreational therapy for a park district, as a counselor at a children's home and as a massage therapist and reflexologist for a Morton Plant massage and therapeutics center.
Bryant himself has a disability, a hereditary eye condition that left him legally blind.
He has a degree in social services and adaptive physical education from Northern Illinois University. He also earned a massage license and reflexology certification in the Chicago area before moving to Florida in 2001.
Bryant said it was during his time at Morton Plant that he discovered he could manipulate nerve endings on the bottom of the foot and send sensations to different parts of the body. In 2007, two years after leaving Morton Plant, he thought about trying the technique on a paralyzed person and started out trying it at no charge.
Today, he charges about $150 per session, less depending on a person's financial means. In some cases, he has provided his services for free.
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Dr. Katzin explained that people with nerve damage can experience abnormal sensations when touched in certain parts of the body.
But paralysis is a complicated condition.
"It very much depends on why she was paralyzed, what the underlying cause of her injury was,'' Katzin said of Ruest, whom she has not treated.
"Paralysis means lots of different things. Someone could be paralyzed but have normal sensation," she said.
There's also the placebo effect.
"You're telling someone that this pill is going to make you feel better,'' she said. "And they feel better just because their mind wants them to feel better, even though the pill didn't do anything."
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Lavita Rodriguez, 24, of Riverview met Bryant at his presentation to a spinal cord injury support group at Tampa General Hospital. A car accident in 2008 left her paralyzed from below her upper thigh area.
"Doctors told me I would get nothing back," she said.
After about a month of weekly treatments with Bryant, Rodriguez said she started to get movement in her toes and feeling in her thighs. Now, about eight months later, she can pedal on a stationary bicycle.
"Anything that I can get back is going to make a difference," said Rodriguez, who said she hasn't seen a medical doctor in some time, though she has kept up her treatments with Bryant.
Creed said he understands why Bryant is so appealing to people whose doctors give them no hope.
"But," he added, "you hope it's not a case of someone giving false hope."
Richard Martin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8330.