The device is called an Ekso Skeleton, a bionic battery operated walking suit or wearable robot that is enabling South Africans with spinal cord injuries and neurological disorders to stand up and walk again. The Just Walk Bionics advanced rehabilitation centre is the only centre of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere that has this kind of advanced technology. The centre was opened in June 2013 by Justin Smith, an incomplete quadriplegic who was shot in the neck during a near-fatal car hi-jacking in 2004.
The Ekso Skeleton is essentially a portable, adjustable, battery-operated bionic walking suit that can be worn over the clothes. It augments mobility, strength and endurance and it enables users to stand and walk with the assistance of a walker or crutches. It is the only FDA and CE approved bionic exoskeleton available. “We took the idea of the external skeleton, and we added nerves in the form of sensors and motors that represent your muscles and computers that represent your brain,” says Eythor Bender, CEO of Ekso Bionics. The device harnesses the power of battery-operated motors to drive the legs and replace neuromuscular function. Motors power the hip and knee joints, and all motion is initiated through the use of an external controller. The device weighs approximately 23kg but it is designed in such a manner that the user doesn’t have to support the weight of the device. According to Bender, the Ekso Skeleton will be “the jeans of the future"-practical, fashionable, and streamlined enough to wear in economy class.”
Just like this patient at the Just Walk centre, so adamantly proving her prognosis wrong, Smith was also told that he would never walk again. He too embarked on a journey to learn how to walk that culminated in the opening of the Just Walk Bionics rehabilitation centre. He believes that the benefits associated with being able to walk again after years of confinement are wide-ranging. “Being mobile, changing your perspective and being able to look people in the eye again evokes feelings that are hard to describe unless you’ve been there. Experiences that able-bodied individuals would not think twice about”, says Smith. “The psychological benefits of walking again using the Ekso cannot be downplayed.”
Beyond the psychological benefits, anecdotal evidence suggests that the use of the Ekso has other significant rehabilitative benefits. These include decreases in spasticity, chronic systemic pain, and Urinary Tract Infections. Some patients also experience better overall bladder and bowel function. According to the Kessler Institute, “repetitive motion retrains the nervous system so that individuals, in some cases redevelop walking patterns, but regular movement also prevents secondary complications of paralysis, including cardiac and lung weakness, poor bone density and pressure ulcers”. The Institute maintains that patients who use the Ekso Skeleton can experience a drastically improved quality of life.
This technological marvel is already changing the lives of wheelchair bound people all over the world who have suffered spinal cord injuries. It is also designed for those with neurological disorders such as Multiple Sclerosis, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Guillain–Barré syndrome, Parkinson’s disease and generalised weakness caused by other conditions.
After close to an hour of practising with the Ekso Skeleton and 300+ steps later, the patient at the Just Walk Centre retires to the familiar confines of her wheelchair. And while the current device is only used as a rehabilitation tool, in time personal units will be available through Just Walk Bionics and this patient may not need to rely on her wheelchair at all.