Bionic robot helps paralyzed walked again

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Patients bound to a wheelchair or can't walk are getting new hope thanks to a robot that is high tech and wearable.

At The NeuroMedical Center in Baton Rouge, physical therapists and staff gathered Wednesday for a special demo. The hospital is considering buying a bionic robot that would aid in rehab therapy of patients who struggle to walk. The company, Ekso Bionics, offered to give the hospital a firsthand look.

"The Ekso device is a wearable robot in effect that enables folks that have lower extremity weakness or paralysis the ability to stand and walk again," said Val Brown, the regional sales manager for Ekso Bionics.

But, at the moment of the big reveal, the therapists were less interested in the state-of-the-art technology and more interested in who is wearing it. Their co-worker Karen Roy has not walked in 26 years. Roy was shot in the back during an armed robbery in 1987 when she was a sophomore at LSU. The wound damaged her spinal cord and she has been in a wheelchair ever since.

Now married and a mother of three, Roy went on to become a social worker at The NeuroMedical Center, which is also a rehabilitation hospital. A self-described people person, she said she enjoys helping patients through the recovery process.

"It helps me relate to what they're going through and they listen to me because I've been there," said Roy.

Roy works hard to stay healthy and keep her body strong. She has a stationary bike that uses electrical pulses to stimulate her legs and she also has a frame that allows her to stand up. But, Roy said she has never used something like the Ekso robot.

The robot itself looks like a high tech backpack with legs. The patient is strapped in at their chest, hips, legs and feet. The robot can then be set to different modes, doing as much or as little of the moving as the patient needs. The patient is also given a walker or crutches to help with balance.

"When you're in the device, you're balancing and you're responsible for shifting your weight," said physical therapist Jennifer Macievich. "So, for a person that has bilateral lower extremity weakness, they're using both of their arms to balance and do the weight shift."

It took about three minutes to strap Roy into the robot in a sitting position. She was then given a walker to help balance. With the press of a few buttons from Macievich, the robot whirred into motion and Roy stood up. Once properly aligned and balanced, she shifted her weight, hydraulics pumped and Roy took her first steps in more than two decades.

The robot moves very slowly, beeping between steps to let the patient know they are properly balanced. But, as Roy moved down the hallway and towards her co-workers, leaning slightly as she shifted her weight, the faces of her colleagues lit up. A few started to cry. Roy's mother just smiled, not surprised that her daughter adjusted to the robot so quickly.

"It feels amazing to be able to move like that again," said Roy.

After the initial joy of seeing Roy walk, the therapists quizzed her and Macievich on the robot's applications and effectiveness.

"It never gets old to see somebody hug their loved one standing up. It never gets old to see that sparkle in their eye when they get up," said Macievich.

The Ekso robot costs anywhere from $75,000 to $150,000. The technology originated as a military project to help soldiers carry heavy loads over long distances. Although several versions exist, the Ekso robot can be used to help rehabilitate stroke victims, patients with multiple sclerosis, paralysis or other spinal cord injuries. It is used as a clinic rehab tool and is not yet available for personal use; however, it is available in about 60 facilities worldwide.

Limited mobility can lead to poor circulation, bone deterioration and problems with the digestion system. Roy said standing, balancing and moving can help improve all of these.

The hospital will decide later if it wants to invest in the robot. However, Roy and her co-workers just enjoyed each step and the chance to stand tall after so long.

"Totally sign me up anytime for that type of guinea pig," said Roy.

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