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Revolutionary robotic exoskeleton has paralyzed South Bend man walking again

As parents, we all fear getting a call in the middle of the night that there has been an accident. My husband and I got a call like that one night, but thankfully our son’s injuries were fixable.

But imagine getting the call a South Bend doctor and his wife got about their son, Joe McTigue. They were told that Joe was involved in a deadly traffic accident.

Meeting last week at Memorial Hospital’s Outpatient Leighton Health Plex, Joe told us, “It was January, 3, 2005. It was just a normal college day, you know, excited about going on a college trip with some college buddies.”

Joe and his buddies decided to leave the University of Iowa over winter break and head to Aspen about 10 o’clock at night. About six hours into the drive, with Joe behind the wheel and horrible road conditions, they hit black ice. “There was a curve to the right and I started right with no response and we kept heading toward the median, which was grass, and we went straight into it. We spun, flipped five times and the roof caved in and I broke my back. My roommate sitting behind me was killed, broke his neck and was killed instantly.”

The other young men in the car were able to walk away, one suffering some disc issues for a while.

The jaws of life were used to pull Joe from the car, and he was rushed to Lincoln, Nebraska. His parents flew out immediately, and the prognosis was grim. “They said he is likely paralyzed, he’s got a severely depressed spinal cord, and they had to put 12 titanium rods in his back.”

But that was only the beginning. Joe was then airlifted to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where he would spend months learning how to live without walking, telling me that to this day, “chest down, I can’t feel anything from here down.”

This 21-year-old, then-college student, was understandably devastated.

“There’re definitely days I don’t want to get out of bed.”

But Joe says he’s always been an optimist, and that kept him going. “You play the cards you’re dealt and it’s sink or swim, and if you want to sit around and pout about it, where’s that going to get you?”

And Joe says 80 percent of the people on his floor in Chicago were quadriplegics. “The guy in the bed next to me couldn’t put his own clothes on, couldn’t put a fork to his mouth, can’t get in and out of the shower without assistance.”

Joe came back to South Bend continuing therapy at Memorial Outpatient Therapy Services, even learning how to drive. He drives himself to work, goes grocery shopping on his own and working.

Now, he is taking part in a new and exciting therapy called ReWalk, a robotic exoskeleton that seems like something from Robocop or Transformers. ReWalk is a wearable robotic exoskeleton that provides powered hip and knee motion to enable individuals with spinal cord injuries to stand upright and walk.

It’s the only ReWalk system in Indiana, and Joe and his therapists, Dena Garnett and Jennifer Cunningham, had to go to Chicago for training.

As Joe does his stretches, which are an important part of using ReWalk, Jennifer explains how it works. “Exoskeleton, it’s a robotic device, it is completely robotic and it all comes down to the wristwatch he wears. He hits sit and it sits, he hits stand and it stands, and he hits walk and it walks.”

Dena explains how far Joe has come since they started using ReWalk in November. “At first, obviously, Joe can’t feel anything from the chest down, so we were the ones that were actually facilitating and shifting, but that’s all changed now and Joe is almost ready to be able to take his ReWalk home.”

Joe practices with the robot two hours twice weekly and activates the robot through his watch.

From wheelchair to standing, Joe says the sense of freedom that is second nature to most of us is wonderful. “The perspective is nice. Being able to talk to somebody face to face is something that, people who don’t have to use wheelchairs, I don’t think consider how big that can be when you are constantly looking up at people.”

And he says that when Dena and Jennifer finally took him outside for a walk, it was very emotional. “I got pretty choked up the first time we went outside just because it’s the first time I’ve taken steps in ten years.”

And he said one mistake entertained some passers-by in downtown South Bend. “I accidentally hit sit on Main Street, so I literally popped a squat on Main Street. Fortunately she reacted well, so I was only really sitting on her knee rather awkwardly.”

Joe has spent the last ten years moving on from an accident that would have broken many. He went back to the University of Iowa and got his degree in business, spent seven years living and working in Chicago and is now back in South Bend working. He and his fiancé even recently bought a house.

So ten years after an accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down, Joe is walking on his own two feet with the help of a robot named ReWalk. And with his fiancé Hayley also being trained on ReWalk, he is hoping in the next few weeks he can take his robot friend home for good, saying, “Two hours a week, it leaves you wanting more. Being able to say I can go home and take a walk after work, you can’t put a price tag on that.”

The ReWalk system is currently the only rewalker FDA approved, but sadly it is not yet covered by insurance, so Joe has set up a payment plan for the device. But he is hoping that, as word about the ReWalk gets out, that will change


Date: April 2015
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