Robotic exoskeleton allows paralyzed man to walk again

Our Keeping You Healthy series covers a wide variety of issues connected to living a happier healthier life. We learned a lot about the impact of attitude in a person’s well being from Brett Hannaford.

On a clear December morning in 2012 Brett, who is an experience pilot, went with his aerobatics instructor Mikey Matthews for a flight. They started off in an experimental plane from Lake Norman.

After a brief stop they continued on their journey. At about 3,000 feet above Mooresville they had engine trouble. He found a nearby airstrip, but noticed people on the ground. “We encountered some movement, some people trying to move some equipment out of the way as we were trying to come in. And we were forced to change our plans at the last second to avoid injuring somebody else. So we elected to crash landed into so bushes on Triplett Road. “Immediately after the crash I was really interested in my good friend in the back seat, he had jumped out of the airplane and face down on the ground. So I was concerned about him and his well being.” Once Mikey responded to Brett, Brett attempted to get out of the plane. It was then he realized his injuries were severe. Brett was airlifted to the hospital where doctors learned he’d suffered a severe spinal cord injury and was paralyzed from his waist down.

We met Brett at the rehabilitation center at Carolina Rehabilitation at Carolinas Medical Center. As soon as he was well enough to begin rehad work, Brett was committed to it! His physical therapist Ashley Clark describes Brett as the perfect patient. “Brett had the best attitude from the day I met him,” Ashley told us. First Brett had to strengthen his upper body and torso. Then he got to use a piece of technology that is changing his world. It’s a robotic exoskeleton called the ReWalk. It is strapped to Brett’s body all the way down his legs and is allowing him to do something her never thought possible again. With the help of the ReWalk, Brett can walk again.

Ashley has worked with Brett for months, and the use of the ReWalk has added a very exciting chapter to his recovery. “Brett will be our first person to independently use the device,” said Clark. “This device is a life changer for people with complete spinal cord injuries to be able to stand and walk on their own again. That is something they thought of as a dream or they have been told they would never be able to do again. I honestly believe exoskeletons will be the wave of the future; the companies have a ways to go with advancing the technology of the device but in 10-15 years you may see people walking down the street in exoskeletons instead of wheelchairs,” Clark said.

Watching Brett use the machine is remarkable. The joy on his face is contagious. “So now I have the ability, the freedom to stand, to walk, it’s such a great feeling! It is very exciting for me now and I do have a very positive outlook. I know I’ve been given a second chance,” Brett said.

“ReWalk is currently only available for use in a clinical setting however, is in the final stages of FDA approval for a personal unit with hopes to be approved in 2014,” Clark says.

As for Brett and his flying, “I’ve been flying airplanes for 22 years it’s just something that I’ve loved since I was a kid! This was an unfortunate circumstance, but I’m still going to get in the airplane and I’m still going to do what I love to do, which is fly planes and it’s going to happen very soon!” After talking with Brett he says it could happen before the end of January. With his determination, and with the amazing technology out there, I believe, for Brett and others, anything is possible!

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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