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Salt Lake City — Two years ago, Heather Leighton was in college as a dance major. On Aug. 14, 2011 she went cliff-diving with friends at Echo reservoir. She hit the water and felt a bad sensation in her back, but it wasn’t until she tried to climb into the boat that she realized something was very wrong: She couldn’t move her legs.
A trip to the hospital and an MRI showed that she had fractured her T-12 vertebrae. She was paralyzed from the hips down. She could no longer walk. She could no longer dance.
In time, she got used to living life in a wheelchair, but now she’s learning to walk again with an assist from a new technology known as ReWalk. It’s an exoskeleton designed to enable people to walk who are paralyzed or have otherwise lost the use of their legs.
“It was kind of the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” Leighton said, describing the first time she used the device during a rehab session. “During one of my visits, my dad came down and I had my first standing hug in a year and a half. It was kind of amazing.”
Leighton helped introduce the ReWalk at a press conference Tuesday, along with representatives of University of Utah Health Care and the company that makes the device.
ReWalk is basically a pair of robotic legs that a user can wear on the outside of her own legs. The device is powered by batteries and controlled by a computer, both housed in a backpack worn by the user. It has accelerometers to sense movement, and when the user leans forward, the exoskeleton begins walking, taking the user’s legs along with it. The user also relies on crutches for balance and support. (For a video of the device in action, click here.)
Stephen Wilson, a paraplegic who lives in Los Angeles and has had months of experience using ReWalk, demonstrated it at Tuesday’s press conference. He said learning to use it takes some practice; it takes precise timing and requires the use of lots of upper body muscles.
The device is currently approved for use in rehabilitation centers like the U of U’s Sugar House Clinic. A version designed for use at home and in day-to-day life is currently in use in other countries and is expected to be approved by the FDA within the next few months, said Phil Astrachan, a representative of Argo Medical Technologies, the company that created ReWalk.