A paralyzed person can complete a marathon, stand up in the kitchen and climb a flight of stairs to a room.
It sounds impossible, but wearable robots called exoskeletons are allowing people right here in Chicago to do those things.
At a meeting of the American Spinal Injury Association, Gene Laureano shifts from a wheelchair into a device that supports his legs and thighs. It straps around his waist. He grabs two crutches, and though he’s been paralyzed from the waist down since a fall more than 10 years ago, he’s able to get up and walk.
And it’s more than few steps. He navigates a long hotel hallway, walking on both carpet and tile floors.
Laureano remembers the first moment he stood up, at a VA hospital in the Bronx.
“I was emotional when I first stood up," he recalled. "I just stood there looking at the physical therapist. It had been so long since I could talk eye to eye with someone. ... I was savoring the moment."
He uses the system, called a ReWalk, three times a week at the VA, and admits he never wants to get out of it.
Argo Medical Technologies spokesman Philip Astrachan said the device is already in a few homes and businesses in Europe.
Astrachan describes it as the ultimate man-machine interface.
"It’s not just a device taking a person for a ride," he said. "It’s really important how the two interact together."
And it begins with the slightest motions of Laureano’s upper body, triggering motion sensors that register that he wants to take a step. A complex computer system then signals the motorized joints to begin moving, one step after another.
For anyone who’s seen Iron Man, a wearable bionic suit is a cool fantasy created by Hollywood, but for people like Michael Gore, it’s a reality created by researchers and scientists who took a concept originally intended for military use, and made it their own.
Rather than lifting and moving items two or three times his weight, it’s Gore’s body weight and movement that’s supported by the Parker Indego. This version of the exoskeleton is compact enough so Michael can wear it in his wheelchair, allowing him to use both forms of movement.
Gore is paralyzed from the belly button down after a fall more than 10 years ago. He accepted his wheelchair bound life, but finding this exoskeleton trial has been life changing, he said.
"It makes you feel part of the community when you’re standing. It was overwhelming to think that I'm going to stand up and walk almost as normal as before."