Daisy Vega proved the picture of fun and energy as she danced with her husband at the recent Riverview Woman's Club country shindig.
Her moves on the floor don't come as a surprise to friends. They see her at civic organizations, shopping and even participating in Zumba classes.
The active lifestyle belies the fact that Vega suffers from multiple sclerosis and once dealt with foot drop, a debilitating side effect.
Now healthier thanks in part to a unique device, Vega looks to take another big step and help others who suffer from foot drop with her new nonprofit, the Freedom To Walk Foundation.
MS is an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord, but thanks to medication and the device known as a WalkAide, Vega can walk without being hobbled by foot drop, which causes the front of the foot to drag along the ground when there is weakness or paralysis of the lower leg and foot muscles.
Vega, spurred by her Christian faith, hopes her new effort will help educate and provide financial assistance for foot drop patients so they can afford WalkAide.
The device can run as much as $5,000.
"I don't consider having MS as a negative thing. Rather, it's a blessing," Vega said, lifting her pants leg to reveal the WalkAide, wrapped around her right leg just below her knee. "If I didn't have foot drop, God wouldn't have placed this idea in my heart to start a foundation."
It's estimated that 75,000 adults and children in Florida suffer from foot drop, including those with MS, cerebral palsy and patients recovering from stroke or brain injuries.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved WalkAide, but Vega paid out of pocket because her insurance company, a private insurer, doesn't cover it. She doesn't want those who can't afford the device to go without it.
Her first mission was to gather her "angels" and get them on board as volunteer officers and directors of the foundation. The task was easy since Vega is involved in so many community and civic organizations, including the Riverview Chamber of Commerce and the Riverview Woman's Club.
Eventually, Riverview entrepreneur Gabi Jones and retired educator Diana Laura stepped up to join the board.
Laura says that she and the other officers and board members are so committed to the foundation they all have donated their own money to get the fundraising off the ground.
In the meantime, as the Freedom To Walk Foundation awaits its nonprofit status approval, the organization is trying to make the community and area employers aware of the WalkAide.
Jones, who heads the board, is happy to lead this charge while helping find other volunteers.
"I was extremely humbled when asked to be a part of this foundation," Jones said. "I think life is a circle and everything we do has a reason. It's all about being good to each other and supporting each other to make life better through love and hope."
Vega also counts her husband Wilfredo among her "angels."
"She has the focus to make the foundation a success, because her number one priority is to enrich people's lives," Wilfredo said. "Once the word is out that there is help, most people will try to get the help they need. I'm there to support her and remind her that this is a long-term commitment. We'll have our hills and valleys and we'll work through them."
Vega first learned about the WalkAide at Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics Clinic in Brandon, where she saw a video about the medical device and was immediately intrigued. She was introduced to Gary Viles, a rehabilitation specialist for Innovative Neurotronics, the company that developed the technology.
Viles says that Vega is lucky she could pay for the device because only about 30 percent of patients who qualify for a WalkAide get reimbursed, and those most likely fall under the veterans health care plan, Tricare military health care and Medicare.
Viles says if he could pick the right person to launch a foundation to help others who can't afford a WalkAide, Vega would be his choice.
"Daisy is very energetic, very strategic, and very intelligent," Viles said. "She thinks things through before she acts on them. She's done a wonderful job of creating a team of leaders with different skill sets to get her foundation off to the right start."
Viles is very optimistic, yet realistic, about the foundation's future. Even if it helps just five or ten patients a year, he says, the effort will be well worth it.
"A lot of patients isolate themselves because they don't feel comfortable walking in public," Viles said. "The WalkAide reverses this downward spiral. If the foundation can help a few people each year, that's awesome."