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Robotic Legs Come to Utah

Andrea Smardon

A University of Utah Rehabilitation Center now has the ability to help paralyzed patients walk again.  A clinic in Sugar House is the first in the Intermountain West to obtain a robotic exoskeleton known as ReWalk.

He’s not exactly Iron Man, but when you see Stephen Wilson moving around in a ReWalk exoskeleton, it does feel like you’re watching something out of a sci-fi movie.  

Wilson came from Redondo Beach, California to demonstrate the ReWalk at the University of Utah’s Sugar House Rehabilitation Center. By tipping his pelvis slightly and using crutches for stability, he’s able to direct the movement of the exoskeleton, which lifts his legs for him. Wilson was partially paralyzed in a car accident more than 5 years ago. Then last year, he was introduced to ReWalk.

“When I first was injured, I was devastated. I really didn’t think I’d be able to integrate back into society and function,” Wilson says. “Since my injury, I’ve accomplished a lot of things in a wheelchair, but the one thing I always wanted to do the most was walk again. Until now, I didn’t have that opportunity.”

“I hope to introduce as many folks as possible to walking,” says Jeffrey Rosenbluth, the Medical Director of the Spinal Cord Injury Acute Rehabilitation Center at the U’s Health Science Center.  He says while only a handful of patients have had the opportunity to use the exoskeleton, it has the potential to help a lot of people.

“I think what you’re seeing - which is already pretty incredible - is just a first-generation device,” Rosenbluth says. “I think in the future, we’ll see all of these electronics shrink. I think really quickly -  within a year or two - you’ll see regular walking speeds, maybe even faster than normal walking speeds, longer battery life, and hopefully lower cost.”

Rosenbluth says the system - which was developed in Israel - costs about 70,000 dollars. He expects it to be available in the US private market by early next year. U Patient Heather Leighton is one of the few in Utah who have tried out the ReWalk exoskeleton.

“Being able to stand was really amazing after a year and a half being paralyzed,” Leighton says. “The idea that I can do dishes, and cook a meal, and maybe do my house chores, or reach something really high, I could change a light bulb on my own eventually, it’s hopeful.”

Leighton was studying to be a dancer when her legs were paralyzed in a cliff diving accident. She is training to be able to walk with the exoskeleton, and one day hopes to dance again.

Andrea Smardon is new at KUER, but she has worked in public broadcasting for more than a decade. Most recently, she worked as a reporter and news announcer for WGBH radio. While in Boston, she produced stories for Morning Edition, Marketplace Money, and The World. Her print work was published in The Boston Globe and Prior to that, she worked at Seattleââ
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