Six-time Olympic champion and former University of Arizona swimmer Amy Van Dyken-Rouen, who was paralyzed from the waist down last year, is walking with the help of a “wearable robot.”
Van Dyken-Rouen, 42, uses robotics from a California-based company called Ekso Bionics to assist her in walking during her physical therapy sessions. She severed her spinal cord in an ATV accident on June 6, 2014.
Standing upright and walking with the help of the Ekso exoskeleton suit provides health benefits to people like Van Dyken-Rouen who have paraplegia, as it helps with bladder function, as well as muscle and bone strength.
Muscle wasting and gastrointestinal problems often arise as a result of constant sitting in a wheelchair.
The technology Van Dyken-Rouen is using is different from the modular prosthetic limbs being developed by former University of Arizona chief resident Dr. Albert Chi at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
Chi’s robotics are for upper limbs only, are controlled via eye movement and are capable of motor and sensory function.
The wearable Ekso technology is a nearly 50-pound assistive suit with battery-powered motors that drive the legs, replacing deficient neuromuscular function. Walking is achieved by the user’s weight shifts to activate sensors in the device that initiate steps under a physical therapist’s supervision.
Van Dyken-Rouen wears the Ekso exoskeleton once a week during her Wednesday physical therapy sessions, her spokeswoman Stacy Volhein wrote in an email.
The only place in Arizona where patients can use the Ekso exoskeleton is at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, which is where Van Dyken-Rouen is doing her physical therapy.
Barrow purchased the Ekso exoskeleton in December 2014 and is in the process of purchasing an additional device, a Barrow spokeswoman said last week.
Barrow is primarily using the device for patients with stroke, brain tumors, brain injuries and other forms of neurological conditions since many of its inpatient spinal cord injury patients are too acute to qualify for using it, spokeswoman Carmelle Malkovich said.
Van Dyken-Rouen lives in the Phoenix area. Ekso officials say 126 of the suits exist at hospitals worldwide and they each cost in a range of $110,000 to $150,000, depending on the needed software.
Van Dyken-Rouen uses the wearable robotics only at physical therapy, under a therapist’s supervision. The suit is not FDA approved for home use.
“I think the big take-away feature we like about Ekso is it’s variable assist, meaning we can turn down the motors based on patients needs,” Volhein wrote.
“Amy uses her core to weight shift, and the muscle strength she does have to initiate the step. She then uses what muscles she has to make the correct path of each step. What she cannot do, the machine does for her.”