News / Calgary

Calgary study examines early benefits of exoskeletons for spinal cord injuries

Researchers at Foothills Medical Centre launched a potential two-year study in June

Alex Hadi, 15, walks in the remote-controlled Ekso Bionic Exoskeleton with the help of two physical therapists.

Jennifer Friesen / For Metro

Alex Hadi, 15, walks in the remote-controlled Ekso Bionic Exoskeleton with the help of two physical therapists.

Everything changed for Alex Hadi on the evening of his 15th birthday.

While tobogganing with friends on December 21, 2015, Hadi hit a patch of ice, causing his toboggan to spin out and sent him head-first into a light post.

“I remember going down the hill and then waking up at the bottom wondering what was happening,” he said.

“(My friends) said ‘Alex, are you going to get up? Do you want a second to breathe?’ And I just said, ‘I can’t feel my legs.’”

The spine injury left him a T7 paraplegic, entirely paralysed below his chest. But, thanks to a new study and a wearable robotic device, Hadi was walking on Wednesday morning.

Hadi has joined researchers at Foothills Medical Centre for a study about the benefits of using an exoskeleton to rehabilitate patients with spinal cord injuries shortly after their injury.

While studies have been done before on the benefits of exoskeleton use in months and years after an injury, this study is the first to look at the early stages of recovery.

“We know people recover at the fastest rate after spinal cord injury in the first six months or so after the injury,” said lead investigator, Dr. Chester Ho. “So we want to take advantage of this opportunity to provide the most intense rehab.”

Fifteen-year-old Alex Hadi (left) and his mother, Stella Efthimiou were at Foothills Medical Centre on Wednesday to use the Ekso Bionic Exoskeleton.

Jennifer Friesen / For Metro

Fifteen-year-old Alex Hadi (left) and his mother, Stella Efthimiou were at Foothills Medical Centre on Wednesday to use the Ekso Bionic Exoskeleton.

There are currently three patients involved in the study, but Ho hopes to enlist more in the next two years, along with more funding for the exoskeletons, which cost almost $100,000 USD each.

The Ekso Bionic Exoskeleton is a 50-pound metal frame that supports a patient’s torso, core, legs and feet. It is remote-controlled by a therapist, but Ho said he hopes the activity will reduce the loss of muscle mass and bone density, as well as help with their mental health.

Hadi’s mother, Stella Efthimiou, said she sees her son’s psychological state improve ten-fold whenever he’s in the exoskeleton, adding that any opportunity she has to see her son stand up and move is “phenomenal.”

“It’s surreal, because this is our new reality,” she said. “This is Alex to us now. But to see him stand up, I was like, ‘wait a minute, that’s Alex.’ That moment when he stands up and you see his face light up – seeing that is worth a million bucks.”

More on Metronews.ca