After 13 years, Eugene Simpson is walking again.
He was a U.S. Army master sergeant serving near Tikrit in Iraq in 2004 when he was paralyzed from the waist down after suffering a spinal injury caused by an improvised explosive device.
The Woodbridge resident has been mobile courtesy of a wheelchair ever since, but now he’s been outfitted with a device called a ReWalk Personal Exoskeleton. It straps onto a user's body and powers hip and knee movement to make it possible to walk.
Simpson received his device courtesy of the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center, one of the sites participating in a study of the ReWalk. Once he’s learned how to use it, Simpson will get to take the device home for four months, according to Ashraf Gorgey, director of the Spinal Cord Injury & Disorder Research department at McGuire.
The VA center has six of the devices for the study, which began in October. It will assess how the ReWalk can affect the quality of life of recipients.
A ReWalk costs about $75,000 and is designed and for about five years of use, according to the company. Each weighs about 60 pounds, with the weight supported on footplates inside the shoes, instead of being carried by the user. Extensive preparation and training go into customizing the ReWalk for each veteran. “Each device needs to fit each patient like a glove,” says Gorgey.
After years in a wheelchair, exercise and stretching are necessary to prepare a veteran to stand and balance for prolonged periods so they can use the ReWalk.
Simpson strolled through the McGuire corridors on a training session in late March. His wife, Aerial, led the way, operating the ReWalk’s control, which looks like a Fitbit. She has to use the device since Simpson must use crutches to stabilize and guide himself while the ReWalk moves his hips and legs. ReWalk Trainer Mina Ghatas stands behind him as he ambles along, a safety precaution in case he falls backward.
Another team member, ReWalk Trainer Assistant Liron Segal, glides a pedometer wheel beside Simpson to track his progress.
Something doesn’t feel right, Simpson says. He hears something in a joint and feels it in his hip, as if the device is overcompensating. He stops, and the team plugs a laptop into the device to make an adjustment on the fly.
Simpson gets a towel and wipes his hands. His wife stands before him, leaning into him, a literal pillar of strength. The adjustment works, and Simpson is on his way. When he tires, he leans against the wall, pauses, then is again on his way.
The device can be used up to eight hours, says Gorgey, but users tire after about an hour and need to rest before they walk around again.
In the early phase of setting up the study, the ReWalk was the only device of its kind that was approved for personal use, says Gorgey. There’s a similar device, an Indego, under study at Sheltering Arms, that has since been approved for personal use.
ReWalks may be used by people with spinal injuries of the T-4 (thoracic) vertebra and lower. Simpson sustained an injury further down his spine, at T-12. He is paralyzed from his hips down, so has abdominal control and use of his shoulders and hands, which are needed to work the crutches.
It's work, but worth the effort, according to Simpson. “I love it,” he says.
Aerial Simpson agrees. “It’s more than I expected,” she says.
Gorgey is upbeat about the device and its potential. He compares the technology with the evolution of portable phones. Think of the current generation of exoskeletons as the technological equivalent of the walkie-talkie-like devices that were used in the mid-1980s. The smartphone version of the exoskeletons, he says, will come with the creation of devices that the user will control with his thoughts instead of through a wristwatch-like unit.
“The device is at its infancy level,” he says.
A roundup of the week’s health and medicine news
- You can get a free screening for neck, head and oral cancer from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday at the Lyons Dental Building at Virginia Commonwealth University, 520 N. 12th St., courtesy of VCU Dental Care.
- The World Pediatric Project has a fundraising campaign underway, 100 Days of Healing. The project provides medical care at no cost to children in need in the Caribbean, and the organization aims to raise $200,000 by July 14. The funds will help it provide services to the 120 children on its waiting list. You can learn more, and make a donation, here.