06 January 2012

Michigan Rehabilitation Hospital Helping Patients Walk

Story first appeared in Detroit Free Press
The first generation of wearable robotic devices is here to help paralyzed people walk and regain independence.

The Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan, part of the Detroit Medical Center, is one of 10 leading U.S. rehabilitation therapy centers testing the Ekso Bionics exoskeleton.

It straps around people so they can stand upright and walk with a walker. The device is propelled by electrical impulses and robotic sensors that help keep users upright and gently propel them forward, a step at a time.

The device -- a forerunner of what the company says eventually will be lighter and more adaptable systems for private use -- currently is limited to centers like the rehabilitation institute participating in the company's study.

It is federally approved for sale and expected to be available later this year for consumers buying the devices for their personal use, according to a spokeswoman for the company, based in Berkeley, Calif.

The Rehabilitation Institute plans to offer the technology to other patients by spring.

For now, six are testing it, including Brendan Milewski, a Detroit firefighter paralyzed in 2010 in an arson.

"I'm hopeful" it will help, said Milewski, 32, of Washington Township, an 11-year member of the Detroit fire force who was injured along with six others at a cell phone shop on East Jefferson.

His life has been dominated by doctor visits and therapy since the accident.

The therapy is arduous, three hours at a time, three days a week. But he'd have it no other way.

Like many younger patients with paralyzing injuries, he yearns to be more independent and wants to regain the strength and abilities he once had. A 1997 graduate of Cousino High School in Warren, he had been an avid hockey player.

Any technology like the exoskeleton holds hope, if nothing else, of what's ahead.

"I'm ready," he said.

Milewski said he already has seen the benefits of his therapy. He couldn't move his arms after the accident, and his entire upper body was weak. Thursday, he looked strong. Tattoos covered his muscular arms, strong from therapy and wheelchair use.

Ekso physical therapist Darrell Musick compares the evolution of the device over the next decade with that of smart phones with dozens of extra functions far beyond the limits of the first cell phones.

"The opportunity in the next 10 years should be endless," Musick said. The devices "should be lighter, faster, more fluid, better turning and more functional."

The device currently costs about $100,000 and is unlikely to be covered by insurance. It is limited to people with some upper-body strength and designed for people who weigh no more than about 220 pounds and who are 5 feet 2 to 6 feet 2.

Still, the technology has benefits for both patients and therapists when compared with other types of electrical stimulation devices for spinal cord recovery, the company and Detroit rehabilitation hospital specialists say.

Other devices often are limited to stationary exercises such as bike pedaling or require several therapists to help move people's feet while walking.

By comparison, the exoskeleton is "a purely passive robot that does the work for you," said Paula Denison, director of special services at the Rehabilitation Institute.

Suited up and strapped in the device's black belts around his legs, Milewski looked like an astronaut awaiting takeoff or an actor in an action movie.

The half-hour trial session he and Max Faistenhammer, 29, of Grosse Ile went a bit slowly for both men. Faistenhammer was injured in a March 2010 motorcycle accident. Like Milewski, he is young and muscular from hours of aggressive therapies to regain his strength and abilities.

For now, it's more wait and see on just how many gains they will make with the robotic device.

Maybe some day ahead, they'll be able to take steps on their own. "It would be great to get in a car, strap this on and go somewhere," Milewski said.

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