Yesterday I was rolling around Alcatraz in my wheelchair, today I entered the HQ of Ekso Bionics (www.eksobionics.com) to try and walk. I’m just south of San Francisco in the university town of Berkeley and I’m here to try out a robotic exoskeleton called Ekso.
As I sat with the lead PT (physiotherapist) we talked about my expectations. I knew the device had solid bars running down the outside of the legs and that motors at the hip and knees would power my legs. I was aware that I would have a computer and battery pack on my back to help co-ordinate the movement of the legs. And I knew that people with similar levels of injury to me had been able to use the device successfully. What I didn’t know and neither did the guys in the company, was how the blindness would impact my chances of success.
I was assessed, measured, tested, questioned and eventually I was strapped into the device. As I sat there listening to the instructions, with three PTs on standby and a safety harness attached somewhere high above my head I just couldn’t wait to get up and walk.
But I was scared. Not of the walking or chances of falling. Rather I was scared that my blindness would stop me from being part of something that I believe is one of my best chances of walking again. Maybe exercise-based recovery like my Project Walk or Standing Start training will allow me to walk again. Or maybe some revolutionary new treatment will emerge in the field of medicine. But I can’t help thinking that these robotic legs will be part of the overall solution and there I was sitting in a set of them with the chance of walking.
I leant forward onto a walking frame. One of the PTs hit the stand button and I rose out of my chair and stood. Everything that I had been doing in my hospital rehab programme with Amanda, my Project Walk and Standing Start training and my daily exercise regime with Simon back in Dublin was important in this moment. My experiences of being unstable, of getting stronger and of being upright all combined in this single moment. It was incredible and I hadn’t even taken any steps yet.
Like we discussed in the briefing, I transferred my weight onto my left leg and then forward. “Step” said the PT, a button pushed and my right leg took a step. Then I moved the walking frame forward, shifted my weight onto my right. “Step” and my left took a step. Walker forward, weight shift, button pressed, step completed. Left, right, left, right, left, right, left.
I was up and walking. I had no idea of the time but the PTs were giving me my ratio of standing time to walking time and number of steps. As we passed the first hour it looked like I could start to be part of this exciting innovation in robotic technology. But the walking frame wasn’t the end game, crutches are next and so my walking experiment continues tomorrow. Photos and videos to follow!