Bionic suit helps paralyzed veteran walk for first time in 2 years

Friday, January 25, 2013 - 3:00am

A war veteran who lost her ability to walk and stand two years ago, took multiple steps again thanks to a scientific miracle: advanced exoskeleton technology.

Sgt. Terry Hannigan has an autoimmune disease that slowly robbed her of the ability to walk. Two years ago, she finally succumbed to a full time wheelchair.

"I was so depressed I didn't want to go on. I had no goals. I didn't want to be in wheelchair. How am I going to be part of normal society again?" the Vietnam veteran said.

Hannigan enrolled in an experimental research program through the VA and within one week of physical therapy using ReWalk Rehabilitation 2.0 exoskeleton technology, she was walking.

"Overwhelming tears flowed," said Hannigan. "I had to sit down because I couldn't believe I was standing."

On Tuesday, Argo Medical Technologies unveiled their advanced exoskeleton technology with ReWalk at the San Diego Convention Center.

ReWalk vice president of sales Pete Escallier said the technology is similar to the popular Segway people mover.

"To initiate walking it has a tilt sensor like a Segway. When she wants to walk she leans forward and changes the center of gravity," Escallier said.

The ReWalk was invented by an Israeli engineer after he suffered an accident that left him quadriplegic. It uses computer technology and motion sensors to allow the person to walk again.

Hannigan said she is totally in control.

"My upper body communicates with the computer in the back. You can't see it but I'm actually shifting a little bit left and right," Hannigan said. "I can go up and down steps, simple curbs, walk-up and down ramps…Bionic woman – watch out!"

The ReWalker is already approved for personal home use in Europe and is expected to be approved by the FDA sometime this year.

When used in physical therapy, it also relieves side effects of atrophy, respiratory issues, circulation problems, bowel and bladder issues, Escallier said.

"All of those things are improved and we'll soon have studies to prove that," said Escallier. "Hopefully that will allow for insurance to pay for this when the personal version comes out."

For now it's only available to be used for physical therapy. If all goes as planned, ReWalk will be life-changer. It certainly was for Hannigan.

"I went from being severely depressed, even suicidal to hopeful. I'm doing things that I thought were gone for the rest of my life," she said.

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