BLOOMFIELD HILLS – A 52-year-old Army veteran was on his feet and crossed the “threshold from impossible to possible” by taking a few steps while wearing a robotic exoskeleton.
Gene Laureano of the Bronx incurred a spinal cord injury in 2001 that left him paralyzed from the waist down when he fell 20-feet off of a ladder while working on a welding project in Manhattan.
In early 2013, Laureano joined a clinical trial of the device at the VA Medical Center in his hometown. After being told he’d never walk again, he used the exoskeleton and “stood up. I knew I was about to cross the threshold from impossible to possible.”
He demonstrated the $77,000 exoskeleton at the Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills to the media in mid-September.
After putting on the 50-pound device, he pressed a button and he was lifted up. The exoskeleton is like braces that surround each leg and there’s a thick strong waist harness that holds the torso upright. Laureano uses crutches when walking with the exoskeleton to keep his balance.
The demonstration was sponsored by Fitness Therapy Unlimited of Troy, a provider of massage, land and aquatic therapy for those with chronic and acute physical conditions or disability caused by auto accidents or chronic conditions, said CEO Greg Kirk.
Craig Peters of Milwaukee, a physical therapist for ReWalk Robotics, Ltd., said the exoskeleton was approved after four years of effort by the FDA on June 26, 2014.
“It’s the only one of its kind cleared for use in the home or in public,” he said in an interview. “It does take a fair amount of upper body strength.”
Fitness Therapy works with potential users of the exoskeleton to get their trunks, arms, and shoulders strong enough to help balance themselves using crutches. The high-tech device has several microprocessors to control motion of the joints in the hips, knees, and ankles.
“Some people spend a large majority of their day in the device and others use it for exercise,” said Peters. “The maximum use per day is usually 3.5 hours.”
Kirk of Fitness Therapy said the advantages of the exoskeleton include getting a person’s body back in motion, reduced pain, improved bladder, and bowel function, increased bone density, reduced chance of developing decubiti ulcers on the buttocks and the psychological benefit of being able to stand up and look someone in the eye.
The device was invented by Israeli founder of Argo Medical Technologies, Dr. Amit Goffer who has quadriplegia. The only manufacturer in the United States is ReWalk of Marlborough, Mass. Other manufacturers are in Germany and Israel.
Two Blue Cross Blue Shield plans will cover the cost of the device, Peters said, but refused to say where the insurers were located. However, he said efforts are under way to get “approval from No Fault insurance for purchase of the exoskeleton” so more people who have paralysis can get back on their feet.
Jerry Wolffe is the writer-in-residence, advocate-at-large at the Macomb-Oakland Regional Center.