Technology designed for combat zones by the US military is being used successfully in Irish gyms to return the gift of movement to people with paralysed limbs.
The wearable “bionic suit” allows disabled people get the physical and mental benefits of walking and its ease of use has seen the technology spread from the hospital environment to the community.
The suit, made by Ekso Bionics of California, was originally designed for people with complete spinal cord injury but is now also being used to treat people who have had a stroke and, on an experimental basis*, to treat people with multiple sclerosis.
At the Elite gym in Cork, almost as many people with disabilities as able-bodied people are members, since owner Colin O'Shaughnessy and spinal cord injury survivor Nathan Kirwan raised the funds to equip the gym with an Ekso suit.
Mr Kirwan was a patient in the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dublin but on discharge found rehab services suitable to his needs were lacking in his native Cork. Having tried on the bionic suit on a trial in Galway, he decided the technology needed to be available more widely in a gym.
“I started that day in Galway with 17 steps, and now I can do up to 1,000. It feels good; my breathing has got a lot better, my core is strong. I’m getting the physical benefits of walking, but just standing out of the chair every so often gives me a good, positive feeling.”
Mr Kirwan, who has been using the suit twice a week for more than two years, goes for a half-hour walk with it at the end of a gym session.
Wearable exoskeletons were first made by the US army to support troops carrying heavy loads into hostile terrain. The suits were powered to provide movement, and intelligently interpreted the intentions of the user.
Early versions were also heavy, cumbersome and rely on bulky power supplies. As a result, they were deployed mainly for sessional use in hospitals and rehabilitation centres. While lighter materials are now being used, supervision is still required and the suits cannot be used independently in the community.
Gyms provide the environment for such supervision and also allow for much heavier use of the suits, with up to seven people a day in the Elite gym getting an hour’s exercise in the suit.
Jane Evans of Rolling Ball, which brought the Ekso technology to Ireland, says that when she saw the suits in action, she was convinced they belonged in the community rather than solely in hospitals. "Ninety-nine per cent of people in wheelchairs are in their own homes yet most of the resources we spend are focused on hospitals."
There is a saying in the disabled community that “if you don’t walk, you won’t walk”. The barriers to walking again can sometimes seem insurmountable but the bionic suit provides strength for people who do not have it initially. The suit interprets the movement of the wearer, knowing when they want to walk, and training the brain in the right way.
Another suit is in place at the race jockey training centre in Co Antrim, after Irish Injured Jockeys and the IRFU Charitable Trust provided the funding. Among the users there is Jonjo Bright, a young rider who suffered a high-level spinal cord injury in a fall from his horse in a point-to-point race in 2013.
While the Ekso suit has been adopted enthusiastically by individual gyms and fundraising initiatives, Ms Evans admits disappointment at what she feels is official "inertia" in regard to the technology. Ireland is way behind other countries in providing rehabilitation services, she points out; for example, 80 per cent of people who suffer spinal cord injuries here never return to work, compared to just 20 per cent in Switzerland.
* This article was edited on August 21st, 2017