Eli Kulp and former Pa. Governor Ed Rendell at a.kitchen on Thursday

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“I’d like to be able to use my hands.”

Right now, Eli Kulp is focused on regaining his grasp. Psychologically, the High Street Hospitality Group chef and co-owner has made a lot of progress since the May 2015 Amtrak derailment left him mostly paralyzed. The first year was the hardest, he told Billy Penn at a Philly Wine Week event on Thursday, but recently he’s been able to revive his interest in eating. At one point he was 50 pounds down, but now his face is rosy and round, almost back to looking like it did before the accident.

The rest of his body, however, is not like it was before. It may never be. But that doesn’t mean he’s given up trying.

Foremost on the rehabilitation list for Kulp — who lives in NYC but makes near-weekly trips (via a car with driver) to Philadelphia to confer on his four restaurants here — is getting back use of his hands. He does have mobility in his upper arms, and is able to deploy a stylus combined with voice activation and dictation to use a cell phone. He texts and emails like most people. But the ability to grasp things with opposable thumbs, Kulp noted, is one of the major things that makes humans different.

That’s why he’s working with doctors at the Cleveland FES Center — and why he’s putting his heart into efforts to help raise money for the center’s home, the Institute for Functional Restoration at Case Western Reserve University.

“Currently we are helping to raise money and awareness for the FDA pivotal trials for their newest technology,” Kulp wrote via email. “It will be a blend of federal grants from the NIH, philanthropy and venture philanthropy that will allow this technology to come to market as soon as possible.”

The latest fundraising effort is something Philly wine lovers can get behind: A special release of a local wine.

In collaboration with AKA president Larry Korman, Montgomery County’s Karamoor Estate Wines created a new label. Its name follows the AKA brand theme, like the High Street Hospitality-run restaurants a.kitchen and a.bar in Rittenhouse — a.vin. The first limited release of 500 bottles of chardonnay are now available, and a red a.vin meritage will follow this summer.

High Street Hospitality Group co-owner Ellen Yin holds a bottle of a.vin chardonnay Credit: Danya Henninger

Of the $75 price for the bottle, $25 will go directly to support spinal cord research. The white, which Karamoor winemaker Kevin Robinson describes as crisp and bright, almost like a chablis, is currently available at all of the Philly spots Kulp runs with partner Ellen Yin, which also include Fork and High Street on Market.

The research the wine will support could make huge differences in the lives of people with spinal cord injuries.

Kulp, whose lawyers are still finalizing his part in the Amtrak settlement approved last October, has already done a lot of as strength training and manual activation of nerves and muscles, he said. But the new FES (functional electrical stimulation) therapy — the one that needs funding for clinical trials — is the one that gives him the most immediate hope of getting his hands back. Cleveland FES Center researchers Dr. Hunter Peckham and Dr. Michael Keith have developed a method by which they can implant neuroprostheses (wires, basically) that provide electrical pathways that the brain can use to communicate with the unresponsive limbs.

“The muscles are fine,” Kulp explained. “It’s just the connection that doesn’t work.”

And while hands are his focus now, if the funding comes through and development of the technology continues, it doesn’t have to stop there: “They are also working on stimulating lower extremities for standing and hopefully one day walking.”

It’s not the ideal solution, he said — that would be a “biological cure,” aka new stem cells that would regrow the actual nerves. But until then, he believes that “the blend of science, technology and medicine will be the answer for people who suffer from spinal cord injuries.”

Want to help? It’s as easy as splurging on a bottle of a.vin chardonnay.

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...