Wheelchair-bound mom finds ‘miracle on the Southside’
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – You can call it a “miracle on the Southside.” A Georgia mother of two, who was left unable to walk after a car crash six years ago, has now taken her first steps since that accident. It’s all thanks to futuristic technology at Brooks Rehabilitation on Jacksonville’s Southside.
Maria Rea, a school teacher from the small town of Hazelhurst in Central Georgia, has been in a wheelchair since her accident on Feb. 25, 2011. She told News4Jax it was raining as she was driving to school that day. Then her phone rang.
“I mean, I, literally, glanced over for a second to get my phone and I went off the road,” she explained. “Flipped my car one and a half times.”
The crash threw her 75 feet into a field. Her clothes matched the grass and it took people quite a while to find her.
Rea suffered a spinal cord injury, completely shattering her hip and pelvis, ruptured her liver, lungs and spleen, and nearly had her left arm amputated. While her prognosis was bleak, she refused to let a physical nightmare extinguish the dream to walk again.
Six years later, and three hours from home, Rea found new hope at Brooks Rehab — something only the 21st century could offer her. Rea’s robotic legs.
“I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!'” Rea said. “So, here we are today, and we’re going to try it out for the first time.”
News4Jax was at Brooks Rehab with Rea and her family as she met with the person who would help her get back on her feet, Steve Sims with ReWalk Robotics.
“This is a robotic exoskeleton for a paraplegic patient,” Sims said. “It’s a robot. It will walk the patient.”
Sims said the robotic legs are FDA-cleared for home use and can be adjusted over 200,000 different ways to fit a patient.
As Rea was getting ready to try the exoskeleton legs for the first time, she could only compare herself to a sci-fi action movie.
“It’s like ‘RoboCop,'” she exclaimed.
With three generations of her family watching with tear-filled eyes, Rea was fitted with the futuristic braces. Then, with the help of Sims, she took her first steps. Balance and the use of walking sticks didn’t come easily at first. But, slowly, she took a step.
“Crutch, crutch,” Sims said, as he stood behind Rea and coached her as she moved one leg at a time.
“Really, it’s amazing. It’s neat. Teared me up,” her husband, Shane Rea, said.
“I think it’s very exciting. We never thought we’d see this happen,” her family told News4Jax, with watery eyes and giant smiles.
WATCH: Maria Rea takes her first steps in 6 years
“As soon as this happened she just found some kind of strength,” Rea’s mother, Brenda Merritt, said. “I know it comes from God and she has moved on from it ever since.”
Rea’s 7-year-old daughter, Rylie Brooke, watched her mother take her first steps, too. This was a milestone for Rylie Brooke as well, because, until now, she has only known a mom who couldn’t walk.
But within an hour, Rea was doing lap after lap.
“I think my biggest thing was trusting it,” Rea explained. “I have to just trust the machine, but once you do that, it is a lot easier.”
As the exoskeleton was removed from Rea’s legs, she explained her fight is not over.
“This is a trial and they’re gonna run it through the insurance, and they usually have to go through several appeals to get it to where they’ll approve it,” Rea said.
She’s not sure if in the end, her insurance will ultimately approve them, but she’s fought this far, and won’t stop now.
“It’s a very lengthy process, then appeals and appeal it again, but everything in the wheelchair world is,” Rea said.
For now, a wheelchair will continue to be Rea’s world, until she finds out if this technological miracle becomes her new normal.
“And I’m fine with that because my legs are not the best part of me, (they’re) not what makes me,” she said.
Author: Scott Johnson, Reporter and Jodi Mohrmann, Managing Editor of special projects
Date: December 19th, 2016