Watch: Quadriplegic Capetonian learns to walk again thanks to a robotic suit

Business Insider SA

  • South African quadriplegics are learning how to walk again with a robotic exoskeleton.
  • The Ekso Suit is controlled by a trained operator and stabilises patients' joints and helps strengthen weakened muscles.
  • UCT released a remarkable video of one of his quadriplegic patients, Odwa Magenuka, walking in the Ekso Suit. 
  • The research was inspired by the story of Brandon Beack, a C6/C7 quadriplegic following a gymnastics accident in 2012. 
  • Beack and his family are raising funds to make the suit available to disadvantaged communities.

South African quadriplegics are learning to walk again thanks a robotic exoskeleton, called the Ekso Suit. 

The suit is a mobility device used around the world in rehabilitation. It is controlled by a trained operator and stabilises patients' joints and helps strengthen weakened muscles.  

Robert Evans, a PhD candidate in exercise science and sports medicine at the University of Cape Town, is using the powered exoskeleton to help people walk again. The Ekso Suit, produced by the US company Ekso Bionics, is currently in use at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa in Cape Town. 

UCT released a remarkable video of one of his quadriplegic patients, Odwa Magenuka, walking in the Ekso Suit. 

The suit uses sensors to detect when a patient starts to shift their weight, says Evans. This triggers a step: The suit uses motors in the hips and knees to propel the user forward. 

The suit uses variably assistance that adjusts the level of power needed for different patients. If they have a stronger right leg, for instance, the suit will adjust accordingly, then adjust the level of assistance as they become stronger.

Evans is looking into the effect of robotic walking and activity-based rehabilitation on muscle activity, health-related benefits, functional capacity, and psychological well-being in persons with spinal cord injury.

Evan’s research was inspired by the story of Brandon Beack, who was left paralysed as a teenager following a gymnastics accident in 2012.

Brandon Beack. Photo Supplied.

“The doctors told me I would be a quadriplegic for the rest of my life. I said I don’t care if it takes me the rest of my life, I’m never going to give up on my dream to walk again,” said Beack.

“I remember my first-time walking (in the Ekso Suit), my stomach felt as if it was on fire. I was using muscles that had not been stimulated for three years,” said Beack. “But to be able to look eye to eye with someone when you had been stuck in a chair for three years, you cannot imagine the psychological impact that has on you. To be able to hug my mom and dad at their height and not be bound in a wheel chair.”

Beack in the Ekso Suit. Photo supplied

“Being in the suit allows me to take 1,000 steps, much more than conventional rehabilitation does. The process stimulates the body to use muscles again and again. I’ve seen improvements in my blood pressure, core activation and stability, not to mention the swelling in my feet that has dramatically reduced,” said Beack.  

During years of rehabilitation, Beack's family saw the lack of outpatient rehabilitation offered in South Africa. This prompted them to establish the Walking with Brandon Foundation in 2015. The foundation is raising money to make the specialised equipment available to disadvantaged communities at a subsidised cost to them.

Here is an amazing documentary of Beack's journey.

The Ekso Suit itself can cost on average $100,000 (R1.4 million).

The UCT project collected data from 16 patients, in rehabilitation over 6 months, split into two groups – one using the Ekso Suit and the other using activity-based rehabilitation.

“I can tell you so far that we have seen large improvements in both groups. We’re looking deep into the data, monitoring their changes in multiple domains such as muscle activation, blood circulation, bone density and psychological outlook, for example,” said Evans. “We intend to have the preliminary results ready for a conference in August.”

Beack is currently training to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics in the 100m, 200m, and 400m wheelchair racing categories.
Brandon Beack. Photo supplied.

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