Exoskeleton helps veteran make history

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CHICAGO -- He’s one of the first in the world and the only patient in Chicago. Today, Sergeant Roosevelt J. Anderson, Jr, walked out of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago wearing an exoskeleton -- a wearable, robotic device designed to power the legs of patients with spinal cord injuries. Seeing the technology in action is impressive. But seeing what it’s done for the army veteran injured in a motorcycle accident is awe-inspiring.

Sgt Roosevelt J. Anderson, Jr: “I wanted the best opportunity possible to be able to walk again. I wanted to be pushed.”

Make no mistake -- what may look like a simple walking exercise is grueling. With 50-pounds of technology strapped to his body, Sergeant Roosevelt J. Anderson, Jr, takes his steps cautiously. His sister Angela supports him from behind in case he stumbles.

Sgt Anderson: “It took about three weeks to a month before I was completely comfortable in the device.”

The device is the ReWalk exoskeleton – a wearable robot that powers his hips, knees and lower legs. For patients with spinal cord injuries confined to a wheelchair, the technology can be life-changing. But using the device is no easy task – it requires months, sometimes years of training.

Dr Arun Jayaraman, PhD, RIC researcher: “When you and I walk, we can feel the floor and feel the ground. But when you can’t feel anything below your limbs, and you’re depending on a robot to move it, it’s very important that he is in sync with it. The device on this side has an angle sensor and it’s a tilt sensor just above his waist. So when RJ is standing it looks for a certain tilt angle which we can preset and once it tilts it triggers the device. He needs to be in this rhythmic movement. So it takes many training sessions to get to the sync.”

Sgt Anderson: “There are days you put in some hard work and you go home and you have to nap because you’re that tired. But that’s what I wanted. That’s what I signed up for.”

It was Sergeant Anderson who sought out the exoskeleton – asking to be part of a study here at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where he’s been receiving therapy since a devastating motorcycle crash left him with severe neck and spinal cord injuries.

Sgt Anderson: “I broke my neck at the C7 vertebrae and also my spine at the T4-T5 vertebrae. At that time I was told I would never walk again. And technically I couldn’t use my arms either.”

But the soldier who signed on for elite special operations training has always pushed himself – and he’s taken the same approach with his rehabilitation.

Sgt Anderson: “I had got to the point where I was able to walk a few hundred feet. That’s when I transitioned to this. The idea of me walking home with one … I figured that would be another five to 10 years before that’s possible.”

But today -- after a year of training with the ReWalk -- Sergeant Anderson walked out the doors of RIC, making him the first patient in Chicago to take an exoskeleton home for personal use.

Sgt Anderson: “I see myself absolutely strapping in it every day, at least for an hour a day, at least. I would like to get proficient in the device and be able to use it proficiently in the community, walk maybe to the store with it. To be able to stand at home, reach things in cabinets, possibly cook, just being back on my feet. The idea of that is amazing.”

The cost of Sergeant Anderson’s device was about $70,000 – an anonymous donor picked up the tab. the ReWalk unit is FDA-approved but not yet covered by insurance. Don’t be surprised if you see him out walking along Michigan Avenue or the lakefront this summer – he plans to make full use of the technology.

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