Back on his feet

March 31, 2014

New York, United States

By Mike Segar

On a cold Wednesday morning in March 2014, I saw Errol Samuels sitting in his wheelchair before a therapy session at a New York City hospital named Mount Sinai.

 

Errol, a 22-year-old from Hollis, Queens, is paraplegic. The week before his college final exams in May 2012, he and his friends went to an off-campus party. He went out on a deck and the roof collapsed on him, crushing his spine. Errol says his doctors “didn’t need to tell me what was wrong. Once it happened, I couldn’t move my legs at all”. But remarkably, less than two years later with the help of a revolutionary new device named the “ReWalk”, Errol is back on his feet.

 

He has been using an electronic, computer-controlled exoskeleton that powers the hips and knees, helping those with lower limb disabilities to walk upright using crutches. Made by the Israeli company Argo Medical Technologies, it has allowed Errol and other spinal cord injury patients who have enrolled in a clinical trial at Mount Sinai to do something that until recently was considered almost impossible – stand up and walk.

I have a personal interest in spinal cord injuries, so when I heard about the research being done with the ReWalk and other exoskeletons I was immediately fascinated. You see, long before I was born my father Joseph C. Segar injured his spinal chord in 1944 while fighting with his infantry unit in the Philippines during World War II. He became paralyzed from the waist down.

Doctors told my father he would never walk again. But many months later and with the devoted help of a young physical-therapy nurse back in the United States, my dad began to walk. With braces on his legs, and using crutches and later a cane, Joe walked and continued to walk for the rest of his life. That young physical therapist, Caroline Coggeshall, who helped him through his long recovery became my mother, Caroline Segar.

Back at Mount Sinai, Errol is now ready to use the ReWalk. Both his legs are tightly strapped to the motor units, and he wears a small, computer backpack unit. Under the supervision of Dr. Allan Kozlowski, Assistant Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Alexandra Voigt, a therapist and clinical research coordinator, Errol presses a button on a wristwatch-like wireless controller on his right arm.

 

The units by his thighs and hips start to whizz and hum and he simply stands up. He smiles and braces himself with his strong arms. Another button pressed on the controller and Errol’s legs begin to move, his knees rise and his feet move forward. He walks towards me. It’s simply amazing.

 

Dr. Kozlowski tells me that the learning curve on using an exoskeleton device is akin to riding a bike. At first patients require some assistance but they quickly learn to move forwards and backwards, sit up and down and even climb stairs with less and less help.

Kozlowski acknowledges that exoskeletons are still in their infancy and that “the manufacturers will have to address the patient’s ability to use them easily”. However, he envisions exoskeleton devices that will come into regular use in a wide variety of environments to improve mobility, quality of life and health. In the long term, they could become a form of exercise for disabled people and those with a host of injuries.

 

Taking photographs, I follow Errol through hallways and elevators in the hospital down to a ground-floor atrium. All the while people stop and watch. “Amazing” “Incredible” “unbelievable” are just a few of the comments from stunned onlookers as they see Errol quickly navigate his way through the hospital with little assistance. I can only agree. I am in awe.

Exoskeleton technology including the ReWalk has been approved for home use in Europe. Now many involved in these and other similar trials with different exoskeleton suits are hoping that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will also soon approve them for use in patients’ homes.

People want to walk. Being confined to a wheelchair or a bed can have terrible consequences for patients with spinal chord injuries. Errol, who has used the exoskeleton 18 times so far in his therapy sessions, plays wheelchair basketball and is a competitive athlete. He says he wants to run. He told me he now has hope. “Using the ReWalk gives me lots of hope, yeah, that I WILL walk in the future.”

 

There are no cheering fans, no bands, no trumpets when Errol stands up and walks towards me. But there should be. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to photograph this amazing technology and I hope that we will all become used to seeing things like it in our everyday lives. 

 

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