Paralyzed by seven tons of steel, man now walks with a bionic suit

Robert Woo demonstrates the bionic suit ReWalk in Riverside Park (Valerie Plesch)

Robert Woo was trapped under seven tons of steel, his body folded in half at the waist. Between screams for help, he gulped breaths of debris-filled air. He was cold, wet, and couldn’t feel his lower body. It was Friday, Dec. 14, 2007. Woo, then a 39-year-old architect designing Goldman Sachs’ new headquarters, arrived at the construction site at Vesey and West Streets, right across from the World Trade Center site, around 7:30 a.m. After his daily site inspection, he entered the trailer that served as his office. Woo’s coworkers, three engineers and two architects, hadn’t arrived yet—a company holiday party had kept them up late. Woo had opted to stay at home with his wife and two infant sons, Tristan and Adrien. The family had moved from Toronto to the Upper West Side two months earlier to join Woo, who had been commuting between the two cities. Alone in his trailer, Woo entered the site inspection results into his laptop.


“The next thing I know, things went black.”

It wasn’t until a week later that Woo learned that a crane had malfunctioned, sending 14,000 pounds of steel tubes plummeting 25 stories onto the trailer, crushing it. Rescuers found him buried beneath the rubble in the seated position, his head by his knees and a metal rod through his left shoulder. Emergency crews rushed Woo to Saint Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village. His spine was crushed. Doctors told him he’d likely never walk again.
The aftermath of the incident that paralyzed Woo (Gothamist).

Almost six years after the accident, Woo, now 45, is training to walk a mile as part of a 5K aimed at raising money for various charities this Sunday in Riverside Park. But Woo hasn’t regained use of his legs. He’ll compete with a bionic device that uses a combination of motors, gears and motion sensors to help paraplegics walk. Woo credits the technology with helping to lift him out of a deep depression and vastly improving his health.
Woo’s physical appearance belies his condition. Defined biceps fill his sleeves. His hair is jet black, unblemished by grays one might expect to accompany the six-year recovery. While his wheelchair is the only outward sign of his condition, it’s clear his paralysis and reticence to surrender to paraplegia’s limitations have dominated his existence since the crane collapse. He speaks with a quiet intensity, the edges of his Canadian accent dulled by his time in New York City. His words flow in a measured cadence while discussing the accident and the bout of deep depression that followed. He uses his hands rather than inflection to emphasize his difficulty coping with his diagnosis.

“I knew that being paralyzed meant more than just losing the use of your limbs,” Woo said. “It’s not a life I wanted to go through.” Woo spent the three months following the accident at Saint Vincent’s Hospital, where he underwent two major surgeries. The first infused his spine with titanium rods. The second removed fragments of his shattered vertebrae. “I’m bedridden, so I’m not doing anything, and all I feel is a lot of pain,” Woo said of his life then. “It wasn’t a life that I wanted to continue.” He refused to look under the blanket covering his legs and acknowledge his atrophying extremities, or the Foley catheter automatically extracting urine from his body. “I was so helpless, I was like a baby. I had to be fed. I had to be changed, washed, cleaned up,” said Woo. “I’d lost my manhood.” Woo does chin-ups in his apartment (Jonathan Williamson).

Despite the support of his friends, family, and colleagues, that left his room brimming with cards and flowers, Woo said the injury damaged his most important relationships. He fought with his father, a Toronto-based gynecologist and obstetrician, about the amount of morphine and Percocet he took to manage the pain. Woo says his injuries also caused irreparable damage to a marriage already strained by his 80-hour work weeks. Eight months after his injury, he and his wife separated. They eventually divorced and she moved back to Toronto with their two sons.

Woo stayed in New York City. His days of designing buildings that filled city skylines were replaced by outpatient care at Mount Sinai Hospital on the Upper East Side. He completed 30-minute rehab sessions every other day, practicing exercises that helped him acclimate to life as a paraplegic. Seemingly simple tasks like moving himself out of his chair were frustrating and arduous. While Woo responded well to the treatment and saw improvements in his physical condition, his mind remained shattered.

“He just broke down to the point where he didn’t want to live anymore,” said Jim Cesario, Mount Sinai’s senior outreach program coordinator for spinal cord patients. “He was a mess.” Cesario, 64, and a paraplegic himself, hounded Woo to attend group therapy for spinal cord patients. Eventually, Woo agreed. At his very first session, he sobbed in front of a social worker and five other patients. “I was just a wreck,” recalled Woo. “I said, ‘Life sucks. I really hate being in this life, being in a chair and being unable to function completely.’”

Still, Woo refused to believe he wouldn’t walk again. About two months after the accident, his company gave him a laptop. Woo used the computer to help complete the Goldman Sachs project and spent hours researching paralysis cases and possible ways to regain his step. His first glimmer of hope came when he stumbled across a company called Argo Medical Technologies Inc.

Founded in Israel in 2001, the company has developed a bionic suit for paraplegics who still have use of their upper limbs. The device, called ReWalk, uses motion sensors to detect when a patient is preparing to take a step. When the user is ready, a series of motors and gears kick into action and take that step for them. Larry Jasinski, Argo’s CEO, compared operating the ReWalk to using a Segway; leaning forward at the shoulders prompts the device to activate the motors and take a step forward.

“When I saw it, and I saw someone paralyzed walking, my eyes opened up and I said, ‘Wow. I want to walk,’ ” Woo recalled. When Woo learned how ReWalk worked, his fascination with bionics grew. He contacted Argo, and other companies making similar bionic suits, and spent hours researching different devices. (Valerie Plesch)

In October of 2011, Woo was selected to participate in an exoskeleton suit trial at Mount Sinai. The intricacies of the device, made by Berkeley, California-based Ekso Bionics, were different than ReWalk, but the idea was the same: help paraplegics walk by using a motorized suit to drive the legs. Thirty minutes into the first session, Woo took his first step since the accident. “It brought tears to my eyes,” said Woo. “It gave me a sense of purpose.” Woo was unaware of it at the time, but it was the first of thousands of steps he’d take in the coming years. Around two weeks after the trial at Mount Sinai, Woo began a series of ReWalk training sessions at James J. Peters VA Medical Center in the Bronx. He trained for two hours at time, three times a week. Early training sessions included basics like shifting balance and prompting ReWalk to take a step. Later sessions included walking in controlled environments around the hospital.

By June 2012, Woo had completed 68 sessions and saw what he called life-changing results, including an increase in muscle and decrease in fat. The ReWalk sessions also allowed him to reduce his medicine intake.
Prior to the training, Woo was spending as much as $400 a month out- of-pocket on everything from bladder to leg spasm medication. He said the ReWalk sessions naturally improved his medical complications and by the time he had finished training, his prescription bill had dropped to $10 a month. “My quality of life improved so much,” Woo said. Vivian Springer, Woo’s girlfriend of five years, agreed that the ReWalk therapy’s effects were evident in his everyday disposition. “He had a stronger will and determination that he didn’t have before,” Springer said. “It is a form of independence for him.” His increase in independence was accompanied by an even more fervent support of bionics. Woo participated in multiple follow-up trials at both Mount Sinai and the VA. His dream: To one day have an exoskeleton device in his home; to stand more than he sits. “It’s that feeling of being able to be like everyone else,” he says.

Woo’s dream won’t be realized until ReWalk, which costs around $70,000, receives clearance from the FDA. While the FDA has approved the ReWalk for hospitals, it’s still under review for in-home use, according to Jasinski, Argo’s CEO. He said he expects the ReWalk to receive clearance before the end of 2013. The FDA declined to comment, citing an agency policy that prevents them from discussing products under review. Woo prepares to walk a mile on Sunday with a stroll in Riverside Park (Valerie Plesch) FDA clearance is only part of what will ultimately determine whether bionic devices revolutionize spinal cord injury treatment. According to Dr. Steven Kirshblum, medical director of the spinal cord injury program at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, N.J, bionic devices “can dramatically improve the quality of life” for paraplegics. But the machines need to become lighter, easier to get on and off, and less expensive before dramatically transforming the landscape of spinal cord injury recovery.

Yet Dr. Kirshblum is optimistic about bionics’ potential, calling them an “exciting avenue” of technology. And because of the amount of interest the devices have generated, he expects a rapid advancement in bionic technology.
“I think there will be great improvements and upgrades only a year from now,” Dr. Kirshblum said. Woo hopes his most recent exoskeleton demonstration will provide additional evidence of ReWalk’s efficacy. In mid-October, Woo started intensive ReWalk training at the VA in which he takes on everyday tasks while wearing the device. He practices navigating kitchen and office settings, as well as walking in uncontrolled environments outside the hospital. Woo visited LaGuardia Airport at the end of the month and walked through the terminal to see how he would respond to using the device in a public setting.

Woo, who described his trek through LaGuardia as “very challenging,” knows an even greater task lay ahead. On Sunday he’ll line up beside other paraplegics using ReWalk and walk one mile in Riverside Park as part of the Generosity NYC 5K and to raise money for the James J. Peters VA Medical Center’s Exoskeletal-Assisted Walking Program. He hopes to continue playing his part in bionics advancements that he believes will change the mental and physical health of paraplegics around the world. “I like challenges,” Woo said. “Being able to finish a mile is going to be a challenge.” Contact the author of this article or email with further questions, comments or tips.

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