BY MIKE MERINO
It was a bright sunny day in February 2014 when retired Master Sgt. James Smith was driving home from his teaching job and a dump truck spilled gravel onto his path, causing his motorbike to slide and crash on the pavement. The force hurled his 175-pound body over 100 yards into a ditch. Despite wearing a helmet, he was unconscious. When he awoke, he was in an ambulance racing to the hospital emergency room.
The prognosis wasn’t good. His back was broken, a surefire lifetime sentence to a wheelchair.
“Why me?” were his first words.
Robotic suits have been around for years in movies such as Avatar, The Edge of Tomorrow, Elysium and Matrix III, but today the suits are no longer relegated to science fiction.
At the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, paralyzed veterans are learning to walk again thanks to a VA-funded, exoskeletal, assisted-walking research project using the ReWalk 6.0. This wearable robotic device provides powered hip and knee motion to enable
individuals with spinal cord injury to stand upright, walk, turn, and climb and descend stairs. The system allows independent, controlled walking while mimicking the natural gait pattern of the legs.
Although Smith had accepted his new role in a
wheelchair, he still yearned for a chance to walk again. He had always been active. He had spent 22 years in the Marine Corps as a rifleman; he fought bravely during his six tours in Iraq. He retired with multiple medals and awards. “I wanted to be the best so I joined the best,” Smith said.
In 2016, he volunteered and qualified to be a participant in the research project.
“Walking again was something I only experienced in my dreams,” said Smith, 48, donning the space age outfit. “I can’t believe it’s really happening to me.”
The suit fits snuggly and runs on rechargeable batteries that last for a full day of basic use or up to six hours of continuous walking.
With the push of a button, Smith stands up — his first time in three years. Then with another command through his wrist remote, he walks. Crutches help him stay balanced. At first he needs the aid of therapists to guide his every step.
It was a magical moment.
Brittany Durant, research nurse coordinator for the project, works with the patients to adjust the fit and comfort of the suit and to teach skills such as standing, walking, turning, stopping and sitting. She said helping patients like Smith has been one of the more rewarding
facets of her work at the VA hospital.
“We get the opportunity to see their advancement from learning to simply stand and maintain balance, to walking with little assistance,” she said.
In June 2014, the ReWalk 6.0 became
the first exoskeleton system to receive FDA
approval for personal use (in the home and
community) as well as rehabilitation.
The retail price is $95,000; insurance
coverage varies. In December 2015, the
Department of Veterans Affairs issued
a national policy to procure ReWalk
exoskeleton systems for any eligible,
ReWalk Robotics Ltd. is collaborating
with Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for
Biologically Inspired Engineering to focus on
the development of “soft suit” systems for the
treatment of stroke, Multiple Sclerosis (MS),
mobility limitations for the elderly and other
“Maintaining the ability to walk in
everyday life is both the promise and the
goal being pursued,” said ReWalk’s CEO, Larry
Jasinski. Learn more at rewalk.com