With Kansas' first personal exoskeleton, Hutchinson man walks again after falling 30 feet from a balcony three years ago

By Ashley Booker The Hutchinson News abooker@hutchnews.com March 31, 2016

Sandra J. Milburn/The Hutchinson New

Sandra J. Milburn/The Hutchinson New

Joey Ralph fell 30 feet off of a balcony and was told he’d be confined to a wheelchair. But this week, three years later, he was able to do what felt like the impossible – being able to walk again.

Ralph is paralyzed from the bellybutton down, and since his accident, he’s been able to regain sensation throughout his lower body. He has reclaimed quite a bit of function and control in his hips and groin, but not enough to walk on his own.

“I can’t stress enough how valuable the gift of walking is. It was something that was taken away from me for the longest time,” Ralph, of Hutchinson, said about his injury on Nov. 2, 2012 in Lawrence.

Officials with ReWalk Robotics Inc. on Tuesday brought Ralph the first exoskeleton for personal use in Kansas.

The exoskeleton allows people with lower-limb disabilities to stand upright, turn and walk through powered hip and knee motions. There are only 45 to 50 of these for personal use in the United States.

Ralph’s mother, Hutchinson Clinic Family Practice Physician Cynthia Mills, saw her son take some of his first steps after the accident. Mills said it was fantastic after such a fall. She said he’s lucky to be alive.

“I think this is going to be great for him psychologically and physically,” she said. “We’ve done so much rehab and so many different things where they move his legs, but this is special. He’s weight bearing, which as a doctor, I know how good that is for his bones and muscles. I think we’re just going to see so much benefit from it.”

Also watching Ralph was his father, Lloyd, who said “it’s very impressive and been very emotional. It’s been a long hard road.”

”Critical to his health and well-being”

Getting the device wasn’t an easy path for Mills as she tried and tried again to get Ralph’s insurance to cover the $78,000 device.

She had no luck with insurance coverage, and was turned down twice, even after an appeal process. She knew the device would increase Ralph’s quality of life, mobility, sleep, bowel function, bone density, a reduction in pain and help his physiological health.

The doctor and mom knew this because not only does she research spinal cord injury and rehabilitation weekly because of her son, but her son used the exoskeleton a couple of times during re-evaluations at Craig Hospital in Denver, Colorado. It had access to the innovative technology as one of the world’s leading hospitals in the neuro-rehabilitation and research of patients with spinal cord and traumatic brain injury.

Ralph said he still remembers the first time he used a rehab exoskeleton.

“I forgot how tall I was,” he said. He’s now 5-foot-11. He was 6-foot before the injury.

After seeing him use the rehab exoskeletons and how well he slept afterwards – a real issue for those with paralysis – Mills wanted one. But they weren’t FDA approved for personal use until June 2014.

When that happened, she decided to move ahead and pay for it through private funds.

“I think it’s so critical to his health and well-being,” Mills said while watching her son walk.

Mills said this device is covered by the VA for spinal cord injury patients, which is exciting for veterans. She hopes within a couple of years it’ll be covered for all patients, like Ralph, so more people can have access.

Not just about him

While Ralph is the main benefactor of his exoskeleton, he’s not the only one.

Through the purchase of the exoskeleton, ReWalk’s Andy McCord, business development manager, and Jitka Klier, clinical training manager, were able to train and certify two physical therapists and one physical therapist assistant Tuesday and Wednesday at Hutchinson Clinic.

Hutchinson Clinic will be the second certified facility with ReWalk in Kansas. Mid America Rehabilitation Hospital in Overland Park is the other, McCord said.

Along with the certification, the therapists will earn 15 hours of continuing education credits, which will go toward the 40 they need every two years, said Jenilee O’Neal, physical therapist at Hutchinson Clinic.

The two-day certification goes through learning how to fit the device, how the watch works with three modes – sitting, standing and walking, and the transitions between – with the assistance of two hand crutches to maintain balance and control.

O’Neal said she hopes that more people will be able to learn about the exoskeleton so they can help more people like Ralph.

“They’re learning how to use this technology so they can work with other patients, they can work with me,” Ralph said. “Because in the beginning you can’t just strap this on and just get up and walk by yourself. It requires a lot of training, it requires a lot of patience and effort.”

While Ralph’s overall goal is to walk by himself, he’s just in the infancy. He’ll have to complete advanced training after 20 to 40 one-hour-long sessions with the device.

While for some people it takes around 40 sessions, McCord said Ralph was already learning quickly on his second day. When he lost balance causing the machine to stop, he would analyze what happened and try to correct it.

“It’s been an interesting learning experience for all of us,” Ralph said, chuckling about how the staff have had to help him not run into walls.

He said he couldn’t achieve an important milestone in his life without the help of his family and those with ReWalk and the physical therapy department at Hutchinson Clinic. While he’ll use the device often, Ralph said this experience and training isn’t just about him.

“For everyone out there who’s suffering from a disability, and the people who are affected in their lives by their disability, you can overcome the problems that you face every day,” Ralph said. “It’s difficult at first, it’s a long road, and it’s one that you have to conquer many milestones. But it begins with putting forth the effort, with being motivated and wanting to change and wanting to overcome those problems.

“And this has been a personal culmination of that effort for me,” Ralph added, “and I think that it’s something that anybody in my situation could obtain.”


Traci HansenComment