Richmond Times-Dispatch: VA Medical Center receives bionic suit
Device allows soldiers who are paralyzed to stand up and walk
Posted: Wednesday, July 2, 2014 10:30pm
by TAMMIE SMITH, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Whirring a little like a Transformer and looking a little like Iron Man, Army Sgt. Dan Rose stood with the help of the bionic suit he wore and walked down the hallway of the Spinal Cord Injury & Disorders Center at McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond.
Rose, 29, is paralyzed from the chest down, the result of a blast while serving in the military in southern Afghanistan in April 2011.
Normally, he uses a wheelchair to get around. But at the veterans hospital on Wednesday, he demonstrated how he is able to walk with a motorized, battery-powered, 50-pound strap-on bionic suit.
With leg and arm braces and a battery backpack, users are able to move independently, untethered to ropes or other devices to stay upright.
“It’s amazing to be able to stand at eye level with people again,” said Rose, who lives in Madison, Wis., and gets care at the VA hospital there.
He was in Richmond to demonstrate the Ekso Bionics exoskeleton bionic suit, one of which is being donated to McGuire by SoldierStrong, a Connecticut-based organization that got its start sending donations of tube socks, sunscreen and baby wipes to soldiers in combat situations.
SoldierStrong has donated four of the Ekso bionic suits — the first one to Rose, who uses it at home as part of a research study, and the subsequent ones to veterans hospitals.
Each suit costs about $150,000.
“The organization was started five years ago with a simple mission of sending basic supplies to our troops on the front lines,” said Chris Meek, co-founder and chairman of SoldierStrong.
“Two years ago as the wars wound down and the troops came home, we said, ‘Are we going to close up shop or focus on some new things?’ ” Meek said.
The group shifted its focus to providing college scholarships to returning troops, he said, but then came across a magazine article on the Ekso suit.
“Suits five and six are fully funded and under construction,” Meek said.
McGuire veterans hospital will use the suit in its spinal cord rehabilitation program and in research, said Dr. Ashraf Gorgey, chief of spinal cord injury research at McGuire, and Dr. Timothy Lavis, a rehabilitation doctor and chief of the spinal cord injury unit.
“This suit will have a significant impact on all our patients,” Gorgey said. “It will not only provide them the avenue to stand up and walk, but it will provide them the opportunity to minimize several of the problems of spinal cord injury like Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” plus bone and muscle loss, he said.
McGuire’s spinal cord injury unit has 62 beds, with patients in various stages of rehabilitation.
The Ekso suit is approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration as a Class 1 device for use in hospital rehabilitation, according to an Ekso Bionics company representative.
The FDA on June 26 approved a similar device, Argo Medical Technologies’ ReWalk, for use at home and in the community.
There are an estimated 200,000 people in the U.S. with spinal cord injuries, according to the FDA letter announcing the ReWalk approval for home use.
There are limitations to the current devices, said Lavis, including the speed that people can go using them and putting on the equipment, which includes arm and leg braces.
“It’s still in infancy but down the road hopefully we can get these; as you get a wheelchair for a person, you can get the exoskeleton,” Lavis said.
McGuire spinal cord unit staff will be trained on using the device in therapy before patients are allowed to use it. The device can accommodate people 5 feet tall to 6 feet 4 inches tall and up to 220 pounds, a company spokesman said, and can be adjusted for use in about five minutes.
According to company information, a user’s weight shifts to activate sensors in the device, initiating steps. It can be adjusted as patients get more skilled at using it.
Rose said he was able to easily adjust to the device. He said he uses it at home for an hour a day.
“The physical therapists I worked with had me up and walking right away. It really wasn’t that difficult to pick up,” he said.
“The feeling is actually indescribable to be upright again,” Rose said. “After my accident, I kind of gave up on the hope of walking and just tried to focus on whatever I needed to do to get back to living an independent life. So I really didn’t think about walking again. … I’m excited to see what the technology holds for the future.”