Exo-Man: Meet the sparky trading his ute for an exoskeleton to walk again
He took a corner too fast, flipped off the motorbike, broke his back and became a paraplegic.
That night, lying in emergency and dosed up on drugs, he told his long-term girlfriend they were breaking up.
He didn’t want her to look after him.
Ellie, who’s now his fiance, told him to shut-up.
Two years later Conor McGrory, 23, did something he never thought possible; he rose from his wheelchair and went for a stroll down a Gold Coast footpath.
He turned heads. Strapped to his legs was a robotic exoskeleton that allowed him to walk unassisted.
This on its own would have been a rare sight – the cutting-edge Israeli-made technology is almost unknown in Australia – but to make it even more uncommon, Conor was looking to become only the third person in Australia to own a personal exoskeleton.
Only one other person owns the most advanced model, the one Conor uses, the ReWalk 6.0.
“It was an amazing feeling,” Conor tells Hack, seated with Ellie around the kitchen table in their home on the outer northern fringe of the Perth suburban sprawl.
“It felt so natural, it felt like I’d never had an accident.”
“As soon we heard about the exoskeleton I thought of being able to stand at the end of the aisle and watch Ellie walk down, and walk with her after the wedding.”
When Hack catches up with Conor in Perth, it is a month since the Gold Coast visit. Conor is hooked and he desperately wants an exoskeleton. He’s willing to sell his pride and joy – a supercharged ute he’d modified after the accident so it could be driven without pedals.
A new ReWalk6.0 costs AUD$130,000 – about the same as a four-wheel drive Porsche.
The ute is on Gumtree but, as it happens, the market is flooded with almost-new utes being sold by unemployed fly in, fly out (FIFO) workers after the mining boom.
Before the accident, Conor was a FIFO electrician, and he has friends who have lost their jobs and moved back interstate. He’s been able to find work with a utility company, but the pay is less.
“We wanted to save up for a house, we wanted to make life as comfortable as possible,” he says.
“It was pretty generic.”
“We were expecting those wages to come in bit longer. Then all of a sudden one weekend on the bike to break my back and everything was cut off.”
“Obviously we hadn’t planned for that as such.”
The accident happened on one of his days off. It was daytime, he was wearing a helmet and all the protective gear, and he woke up on the side of the road without a scratch on his body.
“I knew straight away,” Conor tells Hack.
“I just spat it. I was screaming, ‘I’m paralysed, I’m paralysed’.”
His mates had taken his helmet off and a passerby appeared and looked down at him.
He shouted at her, “Don’t tell Ellie, don’t tell Ellie.”
And the stranger replied, “Well I think she’s going to find out.”
Ellie found out. She rushed to the hospital and, through the window, she saw the helicopter landing and her boyfriend being wheeled into emergency.
“I don’t know how to put this into words,” Ellie tells Hack, recalling the last two years.
“It’s been an absolute rollercoaster of ups and downs and smiles and tears and shock and one minute everything seems normal and the next everything is crazy.”
“Things that never really bothered us before are now things we tackle in daily life.”
That’s why selling the ute is a big deal. Conor bought it six months before the accident, when he was a cashed-up sparky looking forward to a normal kind of life.
Now they’re selling it to fund something that looks like the distant future.
Not everyone is eligible
Until he became a paraplegic, Conor had never heard of exoskeletons. But then, few had. Until five years ago the technology was only in clinics.
This all changed with the first model that could be controlled entirely by the user themselves – it meant the user could walk unassisted, and the exoskeleton could be integrated in daily life, rather than simply being used as a piece of rehabilitation equipment.
About 10,000 people in Australia have a spinal cord injury, and Making Strides is the only Australian retailer of the ReWalk – one of the few exoskeletons available for personal use.
Most of Making Stride’s patients don’t own an exoskeleton, but use the equipment for regular rehab sessions. Mechanised walkers can be seen striding around the centre’s Gold Coast neighbourhood.
The technology is so new that people stare at the exoskeleton users, and don’t know whether to react with pity or thunderstruck awe, the centre’s director Genny Kroll-Rosen says.
“When people are in a wheelchair I find lot of people stare, and it’s almost a pity type stare,” she says.
“But when you’re outside walking on the ReWalk every child is looking over thinking how cool to see an X-Man.”
Although many who come to the centre want to use the ReWalk, not everyone is eligible.
Some have developed brittle bones and can no longer stand, while others have lost too much muscle and are unable to operate the controls.
“We can only go as far as somebody’s body will go,” says Genny.
“We can’t work miracles.”
But she also credits the system with remarkable health benefits that flow from simply being upright, including opening the lungs and restoring muscle tone and bone density.
She says one paraplegic woman began using the system, and then, after 50 sessions, was feeling sick when she stood up. She happened to be an insulin-dependent diabetic and discovered the system had reduced her insulin dependence.
So long as the woman was walking, Genny says, taking insulin made her nauseous.
The technology is developing fast. Elsewhere, researchers are working on exoskeleton ‘mind control’ technology that uses computer software to replace a damaged spinal cord.
This month, for the first time ever, a completely paralysed person had a chip implanted in his brain and was able to regain movement by using their own thoughts.
How it works
Last year the US FDA approved the ReWalk 6.0 for personal use, and a few months later the US Department of Veteran Affairs announced it would pay for ReWalk exoskeletons for paralysed US veterans. International demand skyrocketed.
Early this year Conor was told he had to make a decision – if he didn’t buy the one ReWalk he had on hold, it would go to someone else.
He had three months to raise the cash.
“We had to do it,” Conor says. “There was no way we could pass up on the opportunity.”
And so a few weeks after Hack met them in Perth, Conor and Ellie fly back to the Gold Coast to take delivery of a brand new exoskeleton.
Conor suits up, straps himself in, and is ready to start walking
“Crack out the old ‘Oh my god it’s a miracle’,” he says as he prepares to rise.
Conor presses a smart watch to make the system stand up, presses the watch again to prepare it to walk, and then leans slightly forwards to make it step forward.
The system senses the slight changes in the centre of gravity and tiny battery powered motors whirr into action, one foot lifts up and lands firmly, attempting to mimic a natural gait pattern.
Asked if if feels like the suit is walking him, Conor replies that it feels like he’s in control.
“I can go whatever direction I want to go in, I can do a 180 degree turn. I can stop. I can choose to go up and down stairs.”
It’s exhausting to work the unused muscles, but there are also visible, immediate benefits. As he stands the muscle spasms that have been wracking his legs appear to taper away and stop.
“I’m not an emotional guy,” says Conor. “But standing up beside Ellie, giving her a hug and a kiss, it’s quite exciting.”
Ellie, on the other hand, is willing to identify as an emotional person. One of the great benefits of the exoskeleton is not about muscle tone or bone density – it’s simply being able to stand beside your fiance and look him in the eye.
“I finally got used to him sitting down and the next minute he’s jumping up and walking,” Ellie says.
Soon they will fly back to Perth with a 23kg pair of sci-fi robot legs. They have a couple months to stump up the rest of the cash. They plan on doing some fundraising.
Only one thing is for sure; they can’t afford a wedding anytime soon.
You can contact Conor through his Facebook page
Author: James Purtill
Date: April 28, 2016
Photo: triple j Hack – ABC