'A bionic suit will help me to walk again'

Tue, Nov 13, 2012, 00:00

Gerry McCabe was told he’d never walk again after he severed his spinal cord more than eight years ago. Now he believes he will soon rise from his wheelchair and walk out his front door in Belmont, Co Offaly, once more.

His hopes are fuelled by a local campaign to buy him a ReWalk bionic suit. This is a robotic exoskeleton which allows people who have been paralysed below the waist to stand, sit, walk and climb stairs, using crutches.

The suit works through a combination of a pelvic brace with a motion sensor, leg supports and upper body straps, footplates, an onboard computer, and a rechargeable battery backpack. The sensors detect subtle shifts in balance and body weight and propel the wearer’s legs forward.

British woman Claire Lomas was paralysed from the chest down in a horse-riding accident but earlier this year she used the suit to walk the London Marathon course over a 16-day period. Adventurer Mark Pollock recently appeared on The Late Late Show with a similar device – an Ekso-suit – and demonstrated how it was helping him to walk again.

“With the help of God I’ll be walking next year,” McCabe (52) says.

The husband and father of two fabricated and erected farm buildings until his accident on May 29th, 2004. He was sheeting a building when he slipped and fell, severing his spinal cord. He woke up in the Mater hospital several days later, wondering where he was.

“Your life stops completely. You go from total independence to being completely dependent on people for everything. Dignity goes out the window.”

After leaving the Mater hospital, he spent four and a half months in the National Rehabilitation hospital in Dún Laoghaire. It was there he was told that he’d never walk again. “It’s some shock when you hear it. You’re angry, sad and scared. It’s a dark, lonely place to be.”

When he returned home he didn’t want to leave the house because he was embarrassed by the wheelchair. “And the places I wanted to go to weren’t accessible.”

He finally took the plunge and went out for a pint. “I thought people were looking at the chair more than they were looking at me. But that passed too and I got on with it.”

Then, early last year, he was invited to an open day at the National Rehabilitation hospital where he saw a demonstration of the ReWalk suit. “This man was paralysed but he strapped on the suit, leaned forward in his wheelchair and got up. I can tell you, my mouth dropped and the tears came to my eyes.”

After he went home he “ranted and raved” about the suit to anyone who’d listen. “It was a far-off dream, I suppose, and I thought, maybe some day.”

But his friends and neighbours didn’t want to wait that long. They formed a committee and started a fundraising campaign. The suit costs about € 65,000 but fitting it in Britain and the necessary training by healthcare professionals brings the total cost to about €100,000. A spokesman for the committee says he believes they will reach the target by December 15th – the day of their fundraising draw.

McCabe says he is overwhelmed by the gesture. “I’m absolutely privileged and humbled by it. There are people from the committee out selling tickets and they are walking the roads every night. I thank God all the time for the goodness of people.”

He is not even contemplating the possibility that the suit might not work for him. “I’ve been assessed for it. I’ve had the bone scan and I am a suitable candidate,” he says.

“I know it’s not going to cure me. I won’t be doing away with the wheelchair but I intend to put the suit on when I get out of bed in the morning and wear it for the day. Cars will be going into the ditch when they see Gerry McCabe out walking again.”

So what is he most looking forward to, if he gets the suit as planned? “I just want to stand up,” he says. “I would give so much just to stand up out of the wheelchair and walk around my own house again.”


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