Young man with spinal cord injury learning to walk again with the help of technology

Young man with spinal cord injury learning to walk again with the help of technology. (WWMT/Jason Heeres).

A young man paralyzed after being hurt on the job is making new strides to walk again with a piece of technology straight out of science-fiction.

A system called the Indego Exoskeleton is helping Lucas Hernandez, 20, regain mobility. The Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids was the first and only facility in Michigan to have the technology.

Hernandez said, “Helps me regain function, help with my leg strengthening. Most of all I did not know it’d stand me up so straight and that felt great.”

Hernandez was enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps before a load of steel pipes at a construction site fell, knocked him off his feet and he crashed to the ground breaking his neck.

“I was face down on the ground, I tried to get up and couldn’t. My head was barely moving. I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t pick up my head,” said Hernandez. “They asked if I could feel my legs, I said no.”

The accident left Hernandez as what’s called an “incomplete paraplegic.” He said he received surgery at a Grand Rapids hospital, which his surgeon recommended he get in touch with Mary Free Bed for rehabilitation. For the last six months, he’s been in physical therapy at the hospital and has seen himself make tremendous strides in his recovery.

“I shouldn’t be able to do what I can now. I’m very grateful,” said Hernandez.

Much of his progress is with the help of the Indego Exoskeleton, which is a robotic device supporting his ankles, knees, thighs and hips. Jake Miller, Hernandez’s physical therapist, said the exoskeleton is designed for patients like Hernandez recovering from a spinal injury or stroke.

“Work on his strength, work on his coordination of balance and really build those factors to work on overall independence mobility outside the device,” said Hernandez.

Miller said patients training with exoskeleton use a walker or forearm crutches, which is also part of the FDA regulation of the device. Hernandez said he walks best with the forearm crutches. The device is battery powered at the hips and knees, and operated by settings on a iPod that are specific to a patient’s needs.

“Provides more support at the knee as needed to help them really achieve that independence of strength with walking. It helps somebody gets stronger and more coordinated with their walking pattern as well,” said Miller. “It’s really to progress somebody’s overall independence mobility with what they want to get back to--an every day life and their goals in what they’d like to work on.”

Miller said the ultimate goal of the therapy with the exoskeleton is to help patients gain enough strength to walk with (at least) a walker or forearm crutches once therapy has completed.

“Before I came here the most I could do was wiggle my big toe on my left foot. My arms had full movement, but my hand were not anywhere close. I could not move my extremities by myself,” said Hernandez. “I didn’t have the amount of function I do now in the right leg. I’m learning how to kick my leg back and forth again. Before I could not and even pick up my leg.”

The 20-year-old said the hospital also helped him find a community of people. He joined the hospital’s paraplegic rugby team.

“It’s good to know people because if you don’t you do go other places in your mind and you get lonely. So, them coming to me telling me this available, that’s available, why do t we try this, it’s a very good experience,” said Hernandez.

Hernandez and Miller work twice a week for one hour each session. Though Hernandez uses a wheelchair most of the time, he’s taking his recovery step by step towards better mobility with the extra help of the exoskeleton and his at-home exercises.

“It feels good. It always feels good putting in the work and seeing what you got done—where you started and where you are now,” said Hernandez.

Hernandez is expected to complete his physical therapy at the end of 2018.

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