Paralyzed vet gets first 'robotic legs' from San Diego VA
By JEANETTE STEELE | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 20, 2017
One minute, Lt. j.g. Brandon Myers was a hard-charging Navy officer gunning it through the Naval Special Warfare obstacle course in Coronado.
The next minute, he was falling abruptly from from a vertical cargo net. He hasn’t felt his legs or pelvis since that hard landing.
Now 28-year-old Myers is the first U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs patient in San Diego County to be issued a pair of robotic legs that allow him to walk fully upright again — if only for a few hours a day.
“The human body is meant to be erect. So being able to get back into that natural posture, it’s pretty epic,” Myers said this week.
It’s a happy collision of technology and medicine, mechanics and grit. In December 2015, the VA approved the issuance of an “exoskeleton” for patients who qualify for it.
It was a watershed moment for paralyzed veterans, as the $77,000 market price is out of range for most people.
This exoskeleton is made by ReWalk Robotics, a company based in Massachusetts, Germany and Israel. The device was invented by an Israeli paraplegic and in 2014 was cleared by the Food and Drug Administration for marketing in America.
A $116,000 donation by San Diego-based Guild Mortgage in December allowed the La Jolla VA to buy its first exoskeleton unit for local veterans to test out.
Nationally, the VA had issued 14 ReWalk devices to patients by the end of 2016, said Larry Jasinski, company chief executive.
Myers’ injury occurred in August 2015. Medically retired by the Navy, he came to the La Jolla VA hospital for rehabilitation. A doctor told him he’d never walk again.
But this week, in a whir of motors, Myers stood up from his wheelchair.
“I’m thankful for that,” he said.
In the near future, after Myers completes his 90 days of VA training with the device, it will go home with him for good.
“I’ll walk around the neighborhood. Take it to a track — just anywhere that’s outdoors,” he said. “Anywhere I can get moving.”
The neighborhood may hear him coming.
His exoskeleton makes noises that are straight out of a RoboCop movie.
Motors at his hips and knees power the legs. Myers controls the device by leaning. A watch at his wrist switches the movement from sit to stand to walk.
A battery pack at his lower back powers the whole enterprise. VA protocol calls for a helper to walk behind, in case the device dies.
But Myers is walking solo — and trucking along pretty fast, using crutches attached to his forearms for balance.
His VA physical therapist, John Colaneri, called Myers a “rock star” with the device after just a short time.
“He is required before he completes his training to walk at a certain speed, to safely cross streets — we have a few tests that are built into the protocol given to us,” Colaneri said.
But robotics legs aren’t for every wheelchair-bound VA patient.
The best candidates are only five years into paralysis, according to the organization Paralyzed Veterans of America. In terms of those injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, that’s perhaps 200 to 400 veterans.
Good candidates are also between 5-foot 2 and 6-foot 2 and weigh less than 220 pounds. Good upper-body strength and movement are also required, among other criteria.
At least 96 paralyzed veterans have expressed interest in the device and likely could qualify for it through the VA, Jasinski said. The company has forwarded their names to the federal agency.
ReWalk is shooting for even bigger numbers than that. Of the estimated 45,000 U.S. veterans with a spinal cord injury, Jasinski said as many as 10,000 may quality for the company’s exoskeleton.
The cost to the VA: About $75,000 each, according to ReWalk. San Diego VA officials couldn’t provide their own estimate Wednesday.
The device has a five-year life span, so that’s $15,000 a year to allow a paralyzed person to walk again.
Initial research has shown that there are benefits to even assisted walking for people with leg paralysis.
“It helps with circulation. Putting weight through the long bones of your legs could help you improve bone density, which is one of the things that declines after you’ve been paralyzed,” Colaneri said.
“There are quite a few benefits of being upright. It can help with digestion and breathing.”
And, there’s an intangible value to standing tall again.
“There’s a huge quality-of-life component to being able to stand, to be at eye level with your friends and family and people in the community,” Colaneri said.
The VA is conducting a 160-person research trial in multiple cities looking at the health benefits of the exoskeleton compared to totally wheelchair-bound patients.
In San Diego, another injured veteran is on deck to train with the donated ReWalk.
Myers said anyone who can use the device would be a fool not to.
But, he added stoically, “My goal is to walk one day unassisted. This is just a segue to that.”
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