You probably remember learning about exo-skeletons back in biology class – beetles have them. So do lobsters. Well now, we can add humans to that list.
Several companies have developed exo-skeletons that give people super-human abilities, like carrying extremely heavy loads. But these robotic suits are also doing something much simpler - helping people who are paralyzed, stand up and walk.
Army veteran Dan Rose has spent the last three years in a wheelchair, after an explosion in Afghanistan left him paralyzed from the chest down. Doctors told the then 26 year old, he’d never walk again.
Things turned out a little differently.
Today, Rose, with long brown hair tucked under a backwards baseball cap, is standing in his apartment in Madison with the help of his new motorized exo-skeleton suit. It looks like something Hollywood actors wear to fight bad guys in sci-fi movies.
Rose’s cousin, Nick Roush, places Rose’s feet in bindings, tightens Velcro straps around his legs and chest and locks the suit’s hip joints. When everything’s secure, Rose is ready to move.
He takes slow, stilted steps in his black Chuck Taylors by carefully positioning each leg, shifting his weight and then triggering the exo suit to move by pushing buttons on a pair of crutches.
“It’s just a whole new perspective like, I can see over stuff now. I’m taller than the refrigerator, like I don’t have to kill myself trying to get something out of the freezer,” he says.This month marks the three-year anniversary of the bomb blast in Afghanistan that changed Rose’s life forever.
He was a combat engineer and his job was to drive around looking for roadside bombs.
“You know every morning that we’d go outside the wire, it’d be like touching the stove. One day that stove’s gonna be hot. Everybody knew it that the stakes were extremely high,” he says.
The day the stove was hot, the enemy detonated 1000 pounds of explosives directly under his truck, ripping it in half. Rose says after the blast he remembers hearing his driver moaning.
“I asked him what was wrong and he told me I was standing on him and so I tried to move my legs or whatever and I was like, is that better? And he was like, well you didn’t even move your legs. I was like, what the hell you mean? I was like, well, hit them. So he starts hitting my legs or whatever and I’m like, well, I can’t feel them so I’m like, well, son of a bitch, I’m paralyzed,” Rose says.
He says there were many dark days after surgery confirmed his spinal cord was completely severed. He says his outlook began to change after he agreed to try downhill skiing, and it felt great. That led to wheelchair basketball, sled hockey, even adaptive mountain biking. And now, Rose is back to walking.
His $130,000 exo-skeleton was donated from a non-profit called Soldier Socks.
People with paralysis are using similar suits in hospitals and rehab centers, but very few people actually own a device to use at home.
Jennifer Macievich is a physical therapist with Ekso Bionics, the company that makes Dan Rose’s suit. She trained his cousin and a friend to be spotters.
“Dan’s part of our study where we’re trying to decide whether or not using the device with a lay person who doesn’t have medical training is safe and effective. And he’s using this device as a home exercise unit. It’s not something he puts on and is gonna walk around in all day,” Macievich says.
“People shouldn’t think of it as an Iron Man suit, ok. It’s not one of these things we can put on a guy and he becomes a superman,” says Dr. Ken Lee, director of the Spinal Cord Injury Center at the Milwaukee VA hospital.
He says says while these exo suits are really cool, for now, let’s forget comparisons to RoboCop. The technology has limitations, but it does offer health benefits for people with paralysis who have enough upper body strength to use the devices.
“By moving, his joint stays limber. Spasticity, which a lot of patients go into spasms, and that can also get decreased as well. Their muscles stayed toned up appropriately, rather than tight or atrophying,” Lee says.
Dan Rose says after using his suit, he’s exhausted, but his body feels relaxed, and his legs and feet, which are usually cold, are warm.
It also just makes him happy to at eye level with people again. But I wondered, is it frustrating, getting to feel a bit like your old self, but not without harnesses and bindings and spotters?
Rose says, not at all. He feels lucky.
“I know guys who are tetraplegic where they don’t have full hand function and so just the fact that I can reach out, tie my own shoes, grab whatever, is huge. I guess as bad as things are they could always be a lot worse, so just be happy with what you got,” he says.