Just under three years ago, a powerful bomb blast ripped the earth apart along a remote road in Afghanistan, leaving Army Sgt. Dan Rose paralyzed from the chest down.
Since then, Rose has plied Rocky Mountain powder on specially adapted skis, completed his first marathon in a wheelchair and surfed on ocean waves atop a longboard.
Now he’s ready to stand up and walk again — on a limited basis — with the help of a $128,000 “wearable robot” that was recently delivered to his Madison apartment.
The motorized, computer-assisted mechanism looks like something out of science fiction, but it’s a product of a growing medical robotics industry that offers new hope to some of the tens of thousands of people paralyzed by spinal cord injuries, strokes and other neurological disorders.
For Rose, it’s the next step in his rapid ascent from the deep depression and hopelessness that plagued him for months after he regained consciousness on April 27, 2011, looked through a window spiderwebbed with cracks in his upended armored vehicle and realized his legs were numb and lifeless.
Next month, several of Rose’s friends will be trained to help him safely maneuver in his robotic suit. Until then, Rose said, the manufacturer is withholding start-up instructions.
“I asked them a few times how to work it, but they wouldn’t tell me,” Rose said, a small, mischievous smile spreading on his bearded face. “They kind of know what kind of person I am. I am kind of adventurous.”
Rose is the second paralyzed U.S. military veteran to own a motorized “exoskeleton” manufactured by Ekso Bionics, of Richmond, Calif.
Ekso is one of a few pioneering companies developing this type of strap-on robotic device. It is primarily a rehabilitation tool that helps paraplegic men and women stay flexible and reduce medical problems created by prolonged inactivity.
But the robots can also be used, with limits, for getting around on any ?flat? surface, said Ekso spokeswoman Heidi Darling.
You may not see Rose striding down State Street anytime soon, because the machine isn’t designed to step over street curbs. But he said he’ll be walking on bike paths as soon as the snow clears.
Drive and determination
Rose’s drive and determination are ?reasons one of his doctors nominated him to receive one of the first of 10 suits being purchased and given away by the Stamford, Conn.-based nonprofit Soldier Socks.
“A big question was, can you find a person who will utilize the Ekso Bionic suit as a full user rather than the exercise bike that sits out and gathers dust in the garage,” said Dr. Ken Lee, who heads the Spinal Cord Injury Unit at the Milwaukee Veterans Hospital.
Rose has been an enthusiastic participant at the clinic, mentoring others and signing up for hand-bicycling, water-skiing and kayaking.
“He is one of these people who is not a couch potato,” Lee said. “This suit is not going to sit around in his living room as a trophy. My only concern is that he’s going to overuse the suit and get into a medical problem, although there haven’t been any medical problems reported by users.”
Rose, 29, is a Tomah native. He earned a biochemistry degree from UW-Eau Claire while serving in the Army Reserve at Fort McCoy for five years. In 2010, he transferred to a unit bound for Afghanistan to sweep roads for hidden bombs.
“His outlook on life is very refreshing,” Lee said. “No matter where he goes people gravitate to him. He’s the class clown, the class nerd and also very intellectual.”
Rose said it wasn’t easy for him to accept his injury. After the blast he spent time in veterans hospitals before he returned to his family’s home.
“He had a lot of depression,” said Rose’s stepfather, Mike Roush. “We had heart-to-heart talks. There were a lot of tears. I told him, ‘Everybody else can pity you, but we’re going to push you.’?”
He was frequently in bed watching television, and he wasn’t working hard on his rehabilitation, Roush said. The turning point came eight months after the bomb laid him low.
“We got him signed up for a ski trip in Colorado, where one of his sisters lives,” Roush said. “At first he didn’t want to go. He was scared.”
Rose said he remembers getting out of the ski lift at the top.
“That was really the moment when the clouds parted,” Rose said. “I realized that there was a lot for me to do.”
Many people who are paralyzed go through years and years of depression. It’s natural to go through a period of grieving, but some reach acceptance sooner than others, Lee said.
“Certain types of people bounce back sooner,” Lee said. “People who get involved in activities early bounce back early.”
After the ski trip, Rose became active at the Milwaukee clinic. He piloted an Ekso suit when it was brought there for a demonstration. More recently, he trained at Ekso headquarters in California.
One day, with the suit on, he walked with a company physical therapist to a nearby commercial district. Rose said he and the therapist had fun seeing shoppers’ eyes widen.
“I told her we should take it to the RoboCop premiere,” Rose said, referring to the recently released film. “We’d definitely get on the red carpet.”
Rose said he learned quickly, but at the end of four or five hours in the suit he was mentally exhausted.
When someone is learning to use the device, a physical therapist controls it with what looks like a simple remote for a television. Eventually, the user takes control, pushing buttons on cuff crutches to make the legs swing. Experienced users learn to trigger each step by leaning forward and to one side to trigger the motors, which are wired to an on-board computer that analyzes signals from sensors to determine where the user’s legs, arms and center of gravity are.
“It’s really a weird feeling, because you’re not moving your leg,” Rose said. “The machine is doing it, like you’re a puppet.”
Rose said sometimes he got stuck momentarily because he would mentally will his legs to move instead of leaning to the correct position to fire the motors.
Eye to eye
Someday the robot suits will be controlled by sensors that detect brain impulses, said Shean Phelps, who tracks advances in the field as health technology development director at Georgia Tech Research Institute in Atlanta.
Much research is being done, but there are probably fewer than 100 robot suits in use nationally in rehabilitation clinics, Phelps said, although he’s not aware of anyone who has an actual count.
Ekso officials said the company has built 80. About 60 are in use by customers such as civilian and military rehabilitation clinics, with a few of those reserved as loaners for when maintenance must be done. Ten are used for research and fewer than 10 are owned by individuals, said Darling, the Ekso spokeswoman.
Several companies build similar robotic devices, but Ekso’s model can be used by people with more severe paralysis that has left them without sensation or motor control above the waist, Phelps said.
Besides the robot technology’s benefits to the body, it gives users a huge psychological boost. To understand, Rose said, you have to imagine being seated for years around other people who are standing.
Rose remembered the first time he sat down and strapped into the machine. He leaned forward and pushed down on the crutches. The suit came to life and lifted him to standing position.
“You’re standing at eye level with everyone in the room,” Rose said. “It’s a nice change of perspective. You kind of forget what it’s like.”
It struck him another time when he stood up next to a physical therapist who was shorter than him.
“I felt like a giant,” Rose said.