Step into a suit, strap in, stand up, and walk. That’s exactly what I did last week for the first time. I had heard a lot about the exoskeleton made by Ekso Bionics, especially from a number of other people with Spinal Cord Injuries, and I had been interested in trying it out for myself. Finally, after many weeks, it was time for me to try one of the most novel and innovative forms of treatment for SCI.
Like so many cutting edge technology companies, and fortunately for me, Ekso Bionics is based in the Bay Area, just 15 minutes from my home, in a spacious, futuristic, movie-set-like warehouse where they do everything from design to marketing to engineering to manufacture of this incredible product. Upon entering Ekso, I had the immediate sense of being surrounded by scientific intelligence, and the feeling that big things were happening here. You’re welcome to check out their website to learn specifics but the very brief overview of Ekso is that they’re basically split into developing two types of Ekso Bionic Suits: one for rehabilitating people with SCI and other disabilities and the other for military purposes (an able-bodied person being able to wear the suit and carry hundreds of pounds of weight on their body). Both purposes serve to advance their mission of developing “the most forward-thinking and innovative solutions for people looking to augment human mobility and capability.”
After conducting an evaluation of my physical condition, including precise measurements of my legs, hips and feet, it was time to try it out. It only took a few seconds to strap me in before I was standing upright in the most effortless way I had experienced since my accident. Usually, when I do standing or walking exercises, I have to support much of my weight on my arms and shoulders but with Ekso, this wasn’t the case. I felt upright and fully supported, yet agile and light.
So how does it work??? There are no electrodes or implants or anything that complicated. Basically, to take a step, I put my weight into one leg and lean in that direction and once I pass that “sweet spot” where my balance has shifted but I’m not falling or swaying, the opposite leg will take a step. The suit has sensors in my feet recognizing how much weight is in each foot, so to step again, I lean on the opposite leg and again, as soon as I pass that threshold where enough weight is off the back leg, it takes a step. I started with a walker in front of me to support me but quickly moved on to using crutches which was a bit more tricky at first but easier once I got the hang of it. It didn’t take long to figure it out, so much so that after a few laps, I asked the guys when I could start sprinting with the suit. 🙂
After more than an hour of standing and over twenty minutes of walking, I barely felt fatigued. While the process of walking feels a bit unnatural (you really have to lean pretty far in one direction to make the opposite leg to take a step), the ease and smoothness of walking with Ekso is an unmatched feeling. Thankfully, as an Ekso test-pilot, I will be able to use the suit again and help them as they continue to develop and improve their product.
Much like another incredible piece of equipment that I used recently (the lokomat), Ekso is a marvel of human engineering, designed so precisely and carefully that it will undoubtedly be a pioneer in the field of SCI rehab. I’m thrilled to be a part of the Ekso community and will post and update my progress as I continue to work with them and walk in the suit.