Connect with us

Living

The incredible story of a paralyzed man and his robotic suit

REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Reuters

Published

on

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.

 

Advertisement
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Living

Why veterans are twice as likely to die from overdoses

Reuters

Published

on

By

REUTERS/Charles Mostoller

Opioid drug abuse has killed more Americans than the Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam wars combined, and U.S. veterans and advocates are focusing on how to help victims of the crisis.

Veterans are twice as likely as non-veterans to die from accidental overdoses of the highly addictive painkillers, a rate that reflects high levels of chronic pain among vets, particularly those who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to federal data.

U.S. government and healthcare officials have been struggling to stem the epidemic of overdoses, which killed more than 64,000 Americans in the 12 months ending last January alone, a 21 percent increase over the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About 65,000 Americans died in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

President Donald Trump named opioids a national public health emergency and a White House commission last week recommended establishing a nationwide system of drug courts and easier access to alternatives to opioids for people in pain.

“Our veterans deserve better than polished sound bites and empty promises,” said former Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy, a recovering addict and a member of the president’s opioid commission.

Kennedy said in an e-mail that more funding was needed for treatment facilities and medical professionals to help tackle the problem.

One effort to address the issue has stalled in Congress – the proposed Veterans Overmedication Prevention Act, sponsored by Senator John McCain. That measure is aimed at researching ways to help Veterans Administration doctors rely less on opioids in treating chronic pain.

“The Veterans Administration needs to understand whether overmedication of drugs, such as opioid pain-killers, is a contributing factor in suicide-related deaths,” McCain, one of the nation’s most visible veterans, said in an e-mail on Thursday. He noted that 20 veterans take their lives each day, a suicide rate 21 percent higher than for other U.S. adults.

The VA system has stepped up its efforts to address the crisis, having treated some 68,000 veterans for opioid addiction since March, said Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman Curtis Cashour.

The department’s Louis Stokes VA Center in Cleveland has also begun testing alternative treatments, including acupuncture and yoga, to reduce use of and dependency on the drugs, the VA said.

A delay in naming a Trump administration “drug czar” to head the effort, however, has fueled doubts about immediate action on the opioid crisis. Last month the White House nominee, Representative Tom Marino, withdrew from consideration following a report he spearheaded a bill that hurt the government’s ability to crack down on opioid makers.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Dan Grebler

Continue Reading

Living

Shalane Flanagan: First American woman to win NYC marathon in 40 years

Reuters

Published

on

By

REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Shalane Flanagan became the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon in 40 years when she claimed a dominant victory over Kenyan three-times champion Mary Keitany on Sunday.

The men’s title went to Kenyan Geoffrey Kamworor, who held off countryman Wilson Kipsang.

REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Flanagan, who had never won a major marathon, clocked two hours, 26 minutes 53 seconds for the stunning victory at the age of 36.

Keitany struggled home in 2:27:54 for second with Ethiopia’s Mamitu Daska third in 2:28:08.

“This is the moment I have dreamed off since I was a little girl,” Flanagan said after the race, tears streaming down her face.

REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

“It’s been a tough week for New Yorkers and a tough week for our nation and I thought of what a better gift than to make Americans smile today,” she said, referring to Tuesday’s truck-ramming attack that killed eight in what authorities described as a terrorist act.

Thousands of police lined the course as part of heightened security because of the incident.

“So I was thinking of other people when it started to hurt,” said Flanagan, the 2008 Olympic 10,000 meters silver medalist.

American women had not won in New York since Miki Gorman claimed her second consecutive title in 1977.

REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Keitany, winner of this year’s London Marathon and the fastest ever in a women’s only marathon, had been expected to run away with the race but a slow pace allowed Flanagan and others to stay with her early.

When crunch time came it was Flanagan, not Keitany, who dominated, impressively leading the final three miles.

While Flanagan was an overwhelming winner, Kamworor was not assured of his first major victory until the closing meters.

After taking the lead in the 23rd mile, the 24-year-old 2015 New York runner-up had to contend with Kipsang, whose final push brought him ever so close to his countryman.

But in the end it was Kamworor who won by three seconds in 2:10:53 with Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa third in 2:11:32.

“This is fantastic for me for this is my first victory in (a major) marathon,” said Kamworor, who was running his fifth marathon.

Former winner Meb Keflezighi, who was running his final competitive marathon at age 42, finished 11th in 2:15:29.

Swiss athletes swept the wheelchair titles.

REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Manuela Schaer stunned five-times champion Tatyana McFadden in the women’s race, defeating the American by almost three minutes in 1:48.09.

McFadden clocked 1:51:01 and third went to compatriot Amanda McGrory in 1:53.11.

Repeat winner Marcel Hug gave Switzerland the men’s title in equally dominant fashion, defending his championship in 1:37:21, more than two minutes ahead of British runner-up John Charles Smith. The title was Hug’s third in New York City.

Japan’s Sho Watanabe took third in 1:39:51.

 

(Reporting by Gene Cherry in Salvo, North Carolina, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

Continue Reading

Living

You can earn a decent living without a four-year degree

Reuters

Published

on

By

REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Gail MarksJarvis

Despite images of shuttered factories and a chorus of high school voices chanting the virtues of college, you do not have to get a four-year degree to earn a decent living.

While it may be true that on average, people with four-year college degrees earn more than those who have not gone to college, a study this summer by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce finds there are still 30 million good jobs held by people without bachelor’s degrees. And 28 percent of people with two-year associate degrees make more than bachelor’s degree recipients.

The College Board reported last week that four-year college graduates between the ages of 25 and 34 earn $19,497 more per year than people with only high school diplomas – a sum that seems to make it well worth spending the $20,770 that tuition, fees, room and board the average public college is charging this year.

But if you do not think college is for you, it does not necessarily mean you will struggle to put food on the table.

Those in the 30 million good jobs identified by the Georgetown study earn a minimum of $35,000 to start and $45,000 by age 45. Eventually half the jobs pay $55,000 or more.

That compares, according to the Georgetown researchers, to people with bachelor’s degrees who earn a median $61,000 by mid-career and start at about $33,000.

A rule of thumb in borrowing for college has always been not to have loans that total more than a starting salary in your field. Thinking ahead about occupations and pay is crucial before borrowing money for any degree, because many students borrow heavily without realizing their salary will be deficient to cover loans.

“It’s the degree and the occupation that matters,” said Georgetown Center on Education and the Workplace Director Anthony Carnevale.

These days that takes advance planning and research, to find occupations that pay well, said research director Jeff Strohl, who worked on the study.

For example, an elevator technician with a two-year degree earns $95,000 in Florida, but cosmetologists average just $22,700, which is close to the poverty level for a family of three. A nurse with a two-year degree would average $46,000 while a health aid would make $26,000.

Despite the loss of manufacturing jobs over the last few years, 55 percent of the best paying jobs remain in manufacturing, transportation and construction. But these jobs are dwindling. Since the recession manufacturing has lost 1 million of them, and construction employs 1.6 million fewer people than in 2007, according to the research. To hire for a job that typically does not require college, employers often look for some additional education past high school to weed out candidates, said Strohl.

Good jobs have shifted to workers with associate degrees. They have gained more than 3 million of the net new jobs since 1991; a period when jobs for people with only high school diplomas has declined by 1 million. There are currently 123 million workers in the economy, including 75 million without a bachelor’s degree.

While opportunity is growing for people with associate degrees, Strohl warned that these jobs may lead to a dead end. Often people go to community college to get a two-year degree focused on the liberal arts. The intent may be to save money on the less expensive program and then transfer to a four-year college, but few end up transferring, he said. Courses often are not accepted by other colleges and frequently fail to interest employers.

The lowest earning positions for bachelor’s degree recipients are in the liberal arts and humanities – often starting at $29,000, said Strohl. Yet, business graduates on average start at $37,000, healthcare $41,000 and STEM jobs at $43,000.

(Editing by Beth Pinsker and Bernadette Baum)

Continue Reading

Most Popular