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New tech helps paralyzed Darien man walk

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Five years ago, Mike Loura was dealt a crushing blow.

The Darien resident and triathlete was struck by a car while training for the Iron Man triathlon and has been paralyzed from the chest down since.

Never did Loura imagine that someday, a “bionic suit” would help him walk again.

He spent two years as an outpatient at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare in Wallingford, Conn. In October, Loura received an invitation to test the Ekso Bionic Suit, a wearable robotic exoskeleton, for the public on Thursday, Nov. 8.

“The only time I’d see myself walking was in old videos or in my dreams,” he said. “Now I can see it live with the Ekso device.

“Emotionally it’s very uplifting. The physiology part of it is still in progress.”

The bionic suit is a motorized structure that helps a person with “lower extremity paralysis and weakness” take their long-awaited steps. The system developed by Ekso Bionics in Berkeley, Calif. was originally created as a Department of Defense project at the University of California, Berkeley, that would allow soldiers to carry up to 200 pounds of weight.

In its current form, the suit looks like leg braces with rods attached to support the patient’s back and sides, and platforms that support the feet. It weights about 50 pounds, according to Loura, but does not feel heavy. The motor at the back powers the device and forces hip and leg movement.

It is not an easy solution by any means because even with support, patients have to work on maintaining balance before they can try to walk, according to Dr. David Rosenblum, medical director of rehabilitation medicine at Gaylord and co-principal investigator of the New England Regional Spinal Cord Injury Center Model System. Rosenblum enthusiastically brought the technology to the rehabilitation center after seeing positive research and feedback.

“We found already that the impact on quality of life and perspective is just remarkable,” he said.

The biosuit was listed in INC. magazine’s “Five Big Ideas for the Next 15 years,” in the November 2012 issue. In October, Ekso won the 2012 World Technology Award in the Corporate Health and Medicine category.

Loura demonstrated the biosuit with the help of a walker and two physical therapists. Standing in the device was “absolutely fantastic,” Loura said, and walking even more so. The technology is valuable at different levels of paralysis.  Patients using the suit initially will use a walker for support as Loura did. The therapists program the length and speed of the steps. With practice, Loura will transition to special crutches that provide a lesser level of support. He will be able to move the robotic legs by pressing a button on the crutches.

Ekso will not reverse physical symptoms but it will improve the quality of life for many people — allowing them to sit and stand, Rosenblum said. “For some people it may be quality of life, for others it’s possible the device may be used as part of their therapy,” he said.

After the accident, Loura had to learn how his body’s reactions had changed. He relearned how to brush his teeth and get dressed alongside his young children. His daughters, now 10 and 12, are an inspiration to continue working. After a family wedding, they girls asked him how they would do a father-daughter dance. “Marriage is the last thing I need to talk about,” Loura said. “Effectively we have plenty of time to figure it out.”

“Once I started using the Ekso device they said, ‘Daddy this is something we could use.’”

Standard physical therapy uses a “tilt table” which puts the patient in an upright position while strapped to the table. Another therapy is to walk with leg braces and a walker, Loura explained. It requires lifting himself off a chair into a standing position and “walking” by leaning to one side and lunging. He would repeat this process for “a lap” around his house. Even with a break between laps,  “I’d be pretty much exhausted for the day,” he said.

Loura has made great progress since his accident — he swims in a pool and rides a bike around Darien. He hopes to get a racing wheelchair and return to triathlons someday.

Gaylord is one of 18 hospitals to test the Ekso suit, and the only one in Connecticut. The product has a long way to go before it’s released for public use, said Rosenblum, director of rehabilitation at the center.

Click here to watch Mike Loura walking in the Ekso Bionic Suit.

More info: gaylord.org; eksobionics.org

ydavydov@darientimes.com

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