Kristen Sorensen was 55 when she became paralyzed from the neck down last year.
“It came out of nowhere,” says Sorensen. “I’d been fine and exercising every day, but it just started with tingling in my fingertips then progressed.”
In October 2018 Sorensen was diagnosed with Guillain Barre syndrome, a rare disorder that affects the body’s nervous system, Soresen never expected to recover.
However, Brooks Cybernetic Treatment Center in Jacksonville, Florida, implemented a novel rehabilitative technology developed in Japan — the HybridAssistive Limb (HAL).
HAL — essentially a wearable cyborg – gives patients with spinal cord injuries and muscular dystrophy a second chance at walking. The exoskeleton is a lightweight suit, with automated electric motors that function as mechanical muscles. Sort of similar to that of the Ironman suit.
The best part, however, is that patients need to use their brain waves to control the mechanical suit. Soresen immediately decided to give the exoskeleton a try the moment she heard it was available. Developed by Japanese roboticist Yoshiyuki Sankai, the exoskeleton gave her a glimpse of hope of walking at her daughter’s wedding a couple of months later.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) there will be more than 2 billion people over the age of 60 by 2050 who’d need assistance to walk and exoskeletons could be their only chance at walking.
With substantial potential in the exoskeleton project the market would literally thrive by 2023 believes research company Markets and Markets.
Sorensen shares how she first tried on HAL the exoskeleton, she says she could barely walk across flat surfaces. A trained physiotherapist at the Brooks Center helped her fit HAL over her waist and trousers, connecting her to sensors that help pick up faint bio-electric signals on the surface of the skin, which communicate a patient’s intention to move. Once HAL receives these signals, it helps support the person’s movements.
Easy as it sounds HAL can’t just be donned and be moved around in seconds. The rehabilitation process requires time, determination and practice, the assistance of a
physiotherapist and a body weight harness to ensures that the wearer doesn’t fall off.
During training, physiotherapists keep a log of each patient’s motions and the settings used — from walk to jog mode. They can monitor the user’s movements and adjust the settings accordingly, so their movements come more naturally.
Sorensen records the initial movements she made with HAL she claims it felt like the machine was doing most of the work initially but as time progressed Sorensen, felt like she was in the driving seat. “After the first couple times, your brain connects to HAL, and I could see I was moving my legs myself,” she says. “It was just incredible — my heart was just bursting.”
Usually it takes those with less severe mobility issues than Sorensen between two to 10 tries for patients to get used to HAL so that the sensors and the brain can start working together, according to Sankai. But after almost 40 training sessions, each lasting an hour-and-a-half, Sorensen was back on her feet, albeit with the support of a walker. She made it to her daughter’s wedding.
Currently, Sankai’s exoskeletons are helping patients restore their muscle movements in Japan, the Philippines and in Germany and Poland.
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