The only regional rehab facility using a robotic exoskeleton to help patients walk after catastrophic injuries is based in Allentown.
Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network gives patients hope about regaining their mobility – as well as a sense of independence after an accident or stroke – because “everybody wants to walk,” said Frank Hyland, executive director at Good Shepherd.
Hyland said Good Shepherd chose to partner with Ekso Bionics because the robotic device, made up of leg braces, arm crutches and a computer-controlled backpack, “simulates normal walking and gait.”
Seventy sensors are placed on each biomechanically balanced leg, and the robot suit weighs about 50 pounds.
The purpose of the suit is to aid in the retraining of brain neurons, or neuroplasticity.
“It was always thought the brain could not heal itself [repairing neural pathways], but we now know that is not true,” Hyland said.
Greg Davault of Ekso Bionics said conventional physical therapy treatments require at least three people to help a patient take about eight steps.
“With the Ekso, you can get up to 400 steps and take advantage of repairing the neural pathways and start rehab a lot sooner,” said Davault, vice president of global marketing for Ekso Bionics, based in Richmond in northern California.
Hyland said one walking “suit” costs about $150,000 and Good Shepherd has three. The goal is to have patients “walk out” of the suit, which means they regain enough mobility to walk on their own, either with braces or other support, but without the need for the robotic suit.
Good Shepherd uses the Ekso to shorten recovery times and treat a broad range of patient injuries.
Good Shepherd has treated more than 500 patients since 2012 with the device. While patients worldwide – from Canada, France, Russia, Germany and Asia – have been treated in Allentown, most are from the mid-Atlantic.
In 2014, Good Shepherd became the first facility in the world to pass 1 million steps and since then became the first facility to have 3 million patient steps taken with the Ekso, according to the network.
Other facilities using the Ekso technology include Good Shepherd Penn Partners in Philadelphia, a joint venture with Penn Medicine, and those in New Jersey and New York.
For those who might not meet the “walk out” goal – being able to walk again without the device – Ekso Bionics is developing an at-home unit, though no timeline or cost was disclosed.
Davault said Ekso has 185 customers worldwide, with 250 devices in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East.
“The most common disability is the inability to walk unaided,” he said.
REQUIREMENTS FOR USE
Davault said of the roughly 800,000 strokes per year occurring in the U.S., about two-thirds require rehabilitation to walk again.
The suit isn’t appropriate for everyone, though. Height requirements are 4-10 to 6-2, and patients can’t weigh more than 220 pounds.
“About 80 percent of patients we can treat,” Hyland said.
HOPE IS BACK
Kevin Oldt of Lower Macungie Township was Good Shepherd’s first Ekso patient. Oldt was left paralyzed after a 2001 snowmobile accident.
After initial physical therapy, Oldt said, he essentially became bedridden and was confined to a wheelchair for many years.
He said it took about six months to lose weight and condition his upper body before he was able to begin using the Ekso.
“This treatment has given me back hope,” said Oldt, who exercises daily and goes to Good Shepherd three times a week. “If you don’t have hope, you give up fast and you don’t care.”
Now pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania, Michaela Devins of Au Sable Forks in upstate New York became a quadriplegic from a swimming accident when she was 19.
Initially dismissing the idea of traveling to Allentown, Devins eventually met with Good Shepherd staff and became a patient.
“I had been told the device was only for paraplegic patients,” she said.
But Good Shepherd’s philosophy about who can safely use it persuaded Devins to try.
“I am really fortunate,” she said. “… A place like this gives us an immense amount of hope.”