“Left, right left, your left, your left,” a marching cadence Veterans can associate with. Marching is something taught in boot camp and ingrained in memory. Some Veterans in the spinal cord injury clinic have not been able to do that for some time. Richmond VA Medical Center wants to change that.
On July 2, Richmond received the Exo Gait Trainer (GT). The device is called an exoskeleton and was developed by Ekso bionics. It is a wearable robot that contains several small motors that can be activated by the user shifting his weight, or manually by a therapist. It replicates a normal gait pattern so patients can slow or stop muscle and bone density loss to name a few of its many therapeutic benefits.
Through national fundraising efforts by the SoldierSocks Foundation, Richmond became one of only 10 medical centers in the Veteran’s Healthcare System to receive a suit.
“Richmond is the leader in spinal cord injury research,” said Soldiersocks co-founder Chris Meek. “That and the fact that they serve the largest population of spinal cord injuries (SCI) was just icing on the cake.”
Richmond will be able to utilize the suit in three critical ways; allow combat warriors coming from the war zone to begin their therapy immediately, therapeutic use by the 60 inpatients, and almost 500 outpatient Veterans in the sub-acute stages of their therapy, and lastly the data and information gleaned from the Richmond SCI clinic will be gathered and used to further spinal cord research.
Prior to the delivery, the Spinal Cord Injury clinic has been busy developing rehabilitation and use protocols for the Veterans prior to implementation. “We must develop these protocols because the Veteran’s safety is our number one priority,” said Dr. Ashraf Gorgey, Chief of Spinal Cord Research.
“Some patients have been confined to wheelchairs for a long time and have developed stiffening in the joints,” Gorgey said. “They also have other issues like cardiovascular disease, spasms and hypertension that will have to be considered when developing training,” he added.
The technology is cutting-edge, but Gorgey has been following its direction for the past three years. “I have been to many conferences, and in 2012 I attended a symposium on spinal cord injuries where this technology was featured by a presenter,” Gorgey said. We knew Richmond could benefit from this technology and the staff has been very supportive in obtaining it.”
Dan Rose, an Army sergeant injured in Afghanistan and paralyzed from the chest down, provided a demonstration of the suit and put it through its paces. After initial programming, Rose steadied himself with crutches as the motors began to fire. The Exo GT suit brought him to his feet, knee and hip sensors working in perfect synchronization. Rose is a veteran of the suit, and even has one at his home. “I got used to the suit immediately,” Rose said. He had to go through training that he completed with a physical therapist and two spotters. “I worked with them at home, and between their communication and my follow through, we made it work seamlessly. The Richmond SCI clinic will be sending four of their own therapists to attend the suit training provided by Ekso.
Initial use of the suit is scheduled to begin at Richmond in August. The EXO GT model is built specifically as a therapeutic tool for hospital use and in the future the goal is to develop a home-use version according to Mike Magill of Ekso Technologies.
The immediate future looks bright for Richmond’s SCI patients. The latest therapeutic technologies, a team of dedicated professionals at Richmond and the support of community partners all sharing one goal…to get Veterans marching again.