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The incredible story of a paralyzed man and his robotic suit

REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
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By Andrei Khalip

I dream of walking every other night. The dreams aren’t bitter. They’re charged with hope. It was this hope that led me to California to take part in clinical trials for a powered exoskeleton that is designed to help paralyzed people like me walk again.

I’ve been using a wheelchair for the past 21 years after one day in May 1996 during what was supposed to be an idyllic vacation on the Greek island of Poros.

One moment I was on a cliff cranking up a rented scooter, still shaking the salty Aegean water off my hair after a swim. The next moment I was on the rocky beach five meters below, on my back. I realized I couldn’t move my legs.

As much as I loathe that day, I know that I was lucky. That goofy plunge I took with the badly parked scooter could have killed me or left me completely paralyzed.

Instead, I fractured the 12th dorsal vertebra, right where the rib cage ends. That cost me the movement and feeling in my legs, except for some weak movement and dulled sensation in the upper thigh area.

My chances of recovery were little to none after the long hours my spinal cord remained compressed while I was taken by helicopter to Athens and moved between hospitals.

At 25, it sounded like a death sentence. Then I realized it was more of a life sentence – to lead a different life.

REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

Now here I was in California’s Silicon Valley, thousands of miles from my home in Lisbon, wearing a walking, talking robotic suit called Phoenix, all titanium rods, aluminum-cased motors, wires, straps and protective padding.

When I took my first step, my wife, Liete, gave me a teary-eyed hug. I was too busy keeping my balance to celebrate. It took many more steps and several strenuous sessions before I started to enjoy seeing my wheelchair parked on the other side of the room as I trudged on – first in parallel bars, then with a walker and finally with crutches.

TO FETCH A BOOK

Relatives and friends have bombarded me for years with internet and social media links to the latest research into spinal injury.

It’s a mixed blessing because the research offers hope and yet at the same time shows how little progress there has been in practical terms, at least towards finding a cure.

Stem cell research to treat spinal cord injuries was the big topic 20 years ago. It still offers hope, but scientists say the effectiveness of the treatment is yet to be proven, and there are ethical and health concerns as well.

Experiments with implanted computer chips, sensors and electrodes that send signals from the brain to the muscles, bypassing the injured part of the spinal cord, have enabled some patients to regain some movement in their arms. But I don’t want electrodes in my brain.

Non-invasive systems like electrode caps that pick up brain waves and transform them into tiny electric shocks that make the muscles contract have so far proven too cumbersome.

Which brings me to exoskeletons. They do not claim to be the cure, but they can be a practical aid to making disabled people more mobile.

The original meaning of the word is a protective or supportive shell, like that of a shrimp. More recently it has come to mean an outer frame that not only supports, but also robotically simulates or enhances body movement. That makes paralyzed people the perfect target group.

The fact is, we need to be in an upright position regularly or we develop blood circulation and digestive tract problems. We start losing bone mass, which makes leg bones brittle. Our bodies become more susceptible to infections.

A standing frame, where padded straps for the knee, waist and sometimes upper body keep you upright, is usually the solution at home. My frame allows a bit of leg movement, but it is still a mostly static, bulky contraption, which makes standing a rather tedious chore that I tend to skip too often. I am 46 now and the older I get, the less I can afford to skip it for my health.

REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

If I could walk about the house instead, fetch a book or get a breath of air on the patio, that would be a life changer, not to mention the possibility of doing the same in the office or on the street.

THAT ISN’T ME

With time, and a lot of support from my family, friends and Reuters colleagues, I discovered you can get back in the saddle and regain independence.

Returning to work, first to a desk job in my native Moscow and then to reporting assignments in Latin America, was the most important step in that direction. At one point, I took the “back in the saddle” part so literally, I bought a thundering motorized tricycle which I rode with a bunch of Brazilian bikers.

I reported from slum riots and carnival parades in Rio and from tumultuous election rallies in Venezuela. I learned that even in the most chaotic situations, crowds tend to open a path for a wheelchair and strangers offer to help. I often ended up with a better vantage point than my colleagues.

Slowly, my body adapted. After battling bouts of depression, bladder infections and weight gain, I’ve taken up regular exercise in recent years and am now much fitter, generally in good health and have a moderately optimistic view of the future.

But walking remained off-limits. My leg muscles have largely atrophied, making my calves no thicker than my arms.

Not that I haven’t tried walking. Like many in my situation, I scoffed at the label “confined to a wheelchair,” seeking to prove to myself and others that it doesn’t apply to me. Just like “paralyzed from the waist down,” the expression is often technically wrong. To us, every millimeter of working muscle counts.

REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

A couple of months after my injury I was already learning how to walk in a spinal injury rehab center in Aylesbury, England – on crutches and calipers or full-leg braces that prevent the knee from bending and stabilize the foot.

It was very hard work, especially on my arms and hands, and ultimately proved to be too much. I endured a couple of falls. Calipers just didn’t give me enough confidence to get up on my own or walk more than a few meters away from the exercise rails. The last time I used leg braces, along with a tailcoat and top hat, was on my wedding day in Brazil in 2002.

Over the years I’ve tried other walking aids. All required the assistance of a person called a “spotter” to help me stand. They gave me a very limited range and the speed of a tortoise.

All things considered, life was just easier and I was more independent in a wheelchair.

REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

My home is easily accessible by wheelchair. I can fold it, put it in the car and drive wherever I like. Or I can just roll out onto the street for some air or a drink in a corner bar. Lisbon is not the most wheelchair-friendly place, but more and more buildings have ramps, lifts and adapted toilets.

FEAR OF FALLING

As I prepared for my journey to California in August, I tried to keep my hopes in check. I’d seen videos of paraplegics wearing robotic suits. They were all rather slow and in most cases required crutches for support. They were also generally prohibitively expensive.

If I could put this suit on unaided while in a wheelchair, stand up using crutches and walk around for an hour, that would be good enough for me, I told myself.

I was going to test an exoskeleton called Phoenix, which draws on technology developed at the University of California, Berkeley. The testing I signed up for is needed to win U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. SuitX, the company developing the Phoenix, says it will be the lightest and most affordable version on the market.

REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

SuitX’s CEO, Homayoon Kazerooni, is a professor and director of the Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory at the university. SuitX already makes industrial exoskeletons used, for instance, by airport baggage handlers.

Most exoskeletons have motors or hydraulics powering the hip and knee joints, but the Phoenix has only two motors at the hips, powered by a battery in a small backpack. Hinges keep your knees straight when your weight is on them and allow your lower leg to swing when you take a step.

Phoenix and I did not hit it off right away. In fact, had it just been a test drive and not the intensive two-week program I had signed up for, I probably would have decided that it was not for me.

As much as I had told myself not to expect miracles, I was all psyched up for one. I even came to California wearing a pair of old boots from the time when I could walk. “These boots are made for walking and that’s just what they’ll do,” I hummed the old Nancy Sinatra hit as I laced them up. For more good luck, my wife and I picked a local cafe called “Can’t Fail” to start the first day of tests with a hearty breakfast.

The first disappointment came during the fitting session, when my boots were discarded. I had to wear special shoes to fit the metal soles of the exoskeleton, as well as tight ankle braces to stabilize my debilitated joints.

Standing up was tumultuous, with the physiotherapist and two other employees helping me through the process, which still required a good push off the bars.

Then came my first step. I had been ready to repeat Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” phrase, half in jest, but it got stuck in my throat. I was gripped by a fear of falling. The device felt more wobbly than I imagined. The time it took to regain my balance and shift my weight forward for my next step seemed like an eternity. My knees were half-bent because my hamstrings had contracted so much from sitting for so many years. My hands hurt from nervously gripping the parallel bars.

REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

I was unimpressed, demoralized even, so Liete took me for a scenic drive in the hills near Berkeley, and later we indulged in comfort shopping and some Napa Valley wines. It helped. I slept well and woke up rested and looking forward to getting inside the exo-suit again.

Then I met Steve Sanchez, who has been SuitX’s “chief pilot” for the past five years and uses the device regularly. The ease with which he stood up from his wheelchair and walked about revived my spirits.

It took me several more days to overcome my panic and feel more or less comfortable on my feet. I could stand up, walk and sit down with a spotter. A female voice from a speaker in the suit’s frame encouraged me to keep moving. “Left, right, left,” it said in time with my steps.

My hands no longer hurt as much. At night when I couldn’t sleep I would go over my moves – where I’d failed, what I’d done right – so my walking would be slightly better the next day. In our downtime, we visited San Francisco’s museums and galleries and met friends. Recounting my experience to them helped me figure out that I was actually enjoying the testing more than I thought.

My rookie mistake, I realized, was not trusting the machine and trying to compensate for what I thought were its shortcomings with my own bumbling efforts to support myself and move my legs. After almost two weeks of training, walking was still a lot of hard work, but I was getting faster and gaining endurance.

REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

My health was better, too. A long-time sciatic pain was gone. I even managed to shake off a bad cold, which would normally have landed me in bed. To me, the improvements were tangible.

At the end of the program, the distance I covered during a set time interval had doubled since the mid-term test. I performed the theme from the classic movie about two Olympic runners, “Chariots of Fire,” as I approached the finishing line.

I’m starting to put aside money for a Phoenix because walking is a practical goal, not just a dream anymore.

 

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Dilly-Dilly, There’s Going to Be a Freakin’ Pickle Festival in Philly

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Sunday, September 9. 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Write that down.

Not to get all spiritual, but people who are obsessed with pickles are about to get a glimpse of what heaven might look like, at least in their minds, when the first-ever Pickledelphia Pickle Festival hits the City of Brotherly Love at The Piazza at Schmidt’s Commons.

Michael Wink, c0-founder of Digital Force Agency, is the man pickle addicts can send thank-you notes to for getting this to happen.

“I’m always trying to find things people are passionate about and build events around that,” Wink, who’s also responsible for The Philadelphia Beard Festival, told Better than the Weekend. “People love pickles. There’s always a new pickle recipe going viral. My family could have the biggest spread at Thanksgiving and my sisters and cousins will still go to the fridge for a pickle.”

Creating a festival centered around vinegar-preserved cucumbers and the unending options to enjoy them was an idea Wink had on the back-burner for a few years. He knew people would be interested, but was unsure if an entire festival would take off in Philly. Once Wink decided to just go for it, he realized he underestimated the power of the pickle. Now, more than 45,000 people on Facebook have declared their interest in attending.

Sorry in advance for provoking anxiety without first offering half a xan bar, but when you find out what to expect at Pickledelphia, you’re likely to get a serious case of FOMO. Pickle fam, you might want to sit down for this.

More than a dozen food vendors, plus 15 pickle companies, will be selling themed edibles such as pickle-flavored ice cream, pickle creme brûlée, and pickle pizza.

Urban Village Brewing Company will have 10 kegs of pickle-flavored beer.

Pickledelphia even partnered with Jameson for a pickle back bar. Yeah, they’re not fucking around. Pickle Bloody Mary’s. Pickle margaritas. This is not a drill.

Pickle lovers get access to Pickledelphia for $10. Limited VIP admission for $25. VIP get early access to the event, free pickle samples and a bag of Herr’s chips that taste like, well, you get the trend here.

Okay, we’ve teased you enough. Go tell that friend of yours who you know is going to go APESHIT. And if you’re one of those people who hate pickles, why did you read this far? You must be pickle-curious. Just take a bite. As the saying goes, ‘When in Pickledelphia…’

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Vintage Frat is the life of the party on Instagram right now, possibly forever

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Gone are the days of moms and dads knocking on wood that social media didn’t exist when they were young, dumb and figuring out the world. Remnants of debauchery from past generations are resurfacing on @vintagefrat, an Instagram account paying homage to legendary fraternity throwbacks.

Here’s some of the of the most lit pics from Vintage Fraternity. (Warning: You may see your mom or dad.)

“Hello Ladies, welcome to pledgeship. I’ll be your guide.”

Saturday’s are for the Brothers. 

Take a moment to respect the most legendary composite of all time. 

Daytona Beach ’89 was wild. #AskYourDad

There was always that one Brother who understood the meaning of life. 

Here’s why your dad’s friends call him Superman. 

And here’s when your dad met your mom. 

Reminding the children of the future that House Hounds need to be the focus of every fraternity house.

And here’s a reminder that Benny the Beaver was probably with your girl. 

Tribute to the Brother who didn’t even attend one class all semester.

Classic Spring Break transportation. 

Sure, Greek Life has it’s fair share of wild times.  

But @vintagefrat is a solid reminder that Greek Life is also a resume builder, putting students in positions that prepare them for the future. 

Mainly, Greek Life is about togetherness. #NeverForget #AskYourDad

Go follow @vintagefrat on Instagram and then follow @betterthantheweekend.

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This College Dropout Is Schooling Influencers and Startups on How to Get a Next Level Social Media Following

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Ryan Hertel, Founder of Socialocca

College isn’t for everyone. Ryan Hertel can vouch. He spent three semesters studying mass communications at King’s College, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, after surrendering to pressure from his parents to follow the traditional pathway to money and happiness. Now, the 24-year-old is running his own business — a creative branding agency called Socialocca — in the same field in which many of his degree-holding peers are struggling to stay afloat or even secure entry-level jobs.

As influencers and startups are waking up each day to grind and shine and stand out, Ryan has his finger on the pulse of what works in marketing, what doesn’t and where social media is going. He recently spoke to Better than the Weekend to share some insights.

You’re an unlikely choice to be administering marketing advice to companies. You don’t have a college degree. What makes you an expert? I’m helping people build their brand online. In order to do that, I don’t necessarily need a marketing degree. I just need to have the experience of building a brand. The reason I can even contend when it comes to being in the know about branding and social media and marketing is because I built a DJ’ing business and was successful at building that business by utilizing social media to spread the word and get more than 13,000 followers on Instagram alone. Most people with a marketing degree say, ‘Hey, I know what I’m doing. I was taught what to do.’ I can say, ‘Hey, I know what I’m doing. I used social media to make money for my own business. I can do it for you.’ A lot of people have the knowledge of what to do, but they don’t actually have the track record to prove they can grow a brand’s following. 

Photographed by Lisa Petz

Influencers and newer companies may feel their credibility lies in numbers. Some buy followers to build their credibility. What are the pros and cons to focusing on the amount of followers you have in the beginning by paying for them? People who don’t know what they’re doing who want to be social media influencers do this too often when they’re starting out. There aren’t any pros to buying followers anymore. There were when people were easily fooled and buying followers weren’t a common practice. You can’t fake the following anymore. It’s easy to spot a fake audience today. Plus, fake followers will actually hurt your algorithms on Instagram or Facebook. Less of your real following will see your content. A bunch of fake accounts will see your content and your level of engagement will make you look far less popular than you should be. 

Some services promote buying real followers. Are there any services you know of that do this which you’d recommend? That’s not a real thing. They’re scams. Don’t fall for it. I’d recommend any service that acknowledges they can’t grow your service overnight and one that focuses on goals and not guaranteeing a certain amount of followers. Anybody who says they guarantee results is lying to you. Organic marketing cannot be guaranteed. It all depends on how good the marketing campaign is and how good the content is. 

How important are hashtags in connecting with new followers? They’re not important any more. Plain and simple, anyone who knows what they’re doing on social media doesn’t care about hashtags. They were cool like four years ago. Now, we’re just at the point where some of these hashtags are used by 56 million other people. Hashtags are way too oversaturated. No-one is sitting on their phone and looking up hashtags. It might get a couple more likes, but they’re usually from auto-generated services, anyway. Instagram is now doing something called shadow banning, where they’re even hiding many of these hashtags because they’re trying to slow down the feed. So your hashtag might not even be seen. If you’re relying on hashtags, you have to get way more creative with your marketing.

What is important when marketing your posts? What’s most important, above everything, is the quality of the post. Posting too frequently hurts your feed. Posting quality pics and videos less frequently will be more beneficial, because those posts can circulate for a couple of days if they’re quality posts. People are on social media to listen to what you have to say. It’s now a popularity contest, not a contest as to who posts the most.

Then is consistency still important, or has consistency evolved in terms of marketing on social media? The consistency of the quality of your post is better than the consistency of when you post. While being consistent is important, people get a little too carried away with it, thinking they have to post twice a day at the same time every day. That’s too much for people to take in. They need to be more consistent with the quality of what they’re putting out there and not the time.

Ryan Hertel, Founder of Socialocca

Any tips for influencers and brands when it comes to engaging with their audience? It’s important to actually engage with others and not just post content. Like posts. Comment. Not just on your feed, but there’s too. Even as a business, you want to Like posts and engage on other accounts. Tag people you’re working with. If you’re just sitting there doing nothing, nobody is going to remember you or think about you. If they constantly see you tagging and interacting with others like a regular person, they’re going to take you more seriously.

Where is social media headed? Everything is starting to turn into people asking, ‘What are they doing right now?’ Look at Snapchat and Instagram stories and Facebook Live. You can really cast your entire day on social media for people to see and people will watch. They’re interested in seeing what you’re doing in real-time, they respond to it, and they rush to see it before it usually disappears in 24 hours. When it comes to structure and systems and processes, it’s important to know rules don’t apply. No one rule applies to the same two people or company. Influencers and brands need to start living in the moment and capturing that. The future of social media is immediacy.

And there you have it. Now make like Missy Elliot, put your thing down, flip it, and reverse it onto your own social media branding agenda. Good luck!

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