Exoskeleton systems helps paraplegics walk again

The ReWalk Exoskeleton System

BALTIMORE – Imagine taking your first steps after being told you’d probably never walk again. For a handful of paralyzed patients, it’s a dream come true.

The ReWalk Exoskeleton System is the first of its kind in Maryland, and found only at the University of Maryland Rehabilitation and Orthopaedic Institute.

“1, 2, 3…” Marcela Turnage counted a she shifted her weight to her feet.

At first glance, you might not realize that Turnage took her first steps a few months ago. But even still, she said, each step is a milestone.

“I couldn’t believe it. You know? I have been in my chair for 11 years, I was never, never, never going to feel that–feel the feeling that I was standing tall again. That I could look people eye to eye,” she said.

Before this, she hasn’t stood since she was in her teens. The wife and mother-of-one got in a bad car accident when she was 19; she lost her left leg and was paralyzed from the waist down.

“It was really hard, but life goes on. And you know, I believe in my life,” Turnage said.

She didn’t let paralysis stop her for a second. In the past year, she’s hit the slopes, gone horse back riding, even water skiing. But it’s taking the steps, she says, that defy the odds.

“It was, I don’t know, like, ‘Wow.’ It’s, it’s, you know, the emotions that I felt were indescribable. People ask me, ‘How do you feel?’ It’s amazing; that’s all I can tell you.”

A miracle machine, of sorts, it’s the first of its kind in Maryland.

“I do everything through this watch, so I tell the watch to stand up,” she said as the machine straightened out her legs.

After she’s strapped in and geared up with the computer system in the backpack, the machine bends and straightens, bringing patients to their feet for the first time in years. When she presses the button to walk, the machine reads her movements, allowing her to walk at her own pace. She said now the simple things overwhelm her with joy– things like seeing her husband and daughter eye to eye.

“He has never seen me you know, standing. He married me after my accident. So all he knew was Marcela in a wheelchair,” she said.

With the help of the machine, a handful of patients at the University of Maryland Rehabilitation and Orthopaedic Institute are able to walk again.

“She never really dreamed, I don’t think that she would be able to walk again. And just seeing how excited she is and her response to it, it’s been pretty cool,” said Jean McQuaid, a Physical Therapist.

Patients have to go through an evaluation process before they are given the ‘go ahead’ to work with the machine. Doctors test their flexibility, bone density, and muscular tone. Right now, the center says a handful of patients are able to use the ReWalk system within therapy sessions.

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