At McGuire VA Medical Center, a veteran who had been confined to a wheelchair is up and walking with an exoskeleton device that offers hope for thousands of others with spinal cord injuries.
Major Terry Labar was a Marine major protecting American embassy personnel overseas when he was injured.
Labar: I was injured in Haifa, Israel, by a hit-and-run driver near the naval base.
Fishburne: You’ve been in a wheelchair for 33 years?
Labar: Yes, I have.
But early this year, he began participating in an experimental program with an exoskeleton that will allow him to walk on his own. He is using a Rewalk device that is being tested in six VA Centers across the nation. It is a black, metal and plastic articulated brace with motors and sensors and chips that support him and will eventually allow him to walk by himself. But it is a long learning curve.
beep, beep beep…181 over…
Today (3/17) he is surrounded by a team of specialist at McGuire, helping to strap him in and checking his blood pressure. Then, he does something he has not been able to do for 33 years, he gets up, and he walks.
On this trip around the halls at McGuire, he has lots of help. It will take time for him to learn balance, and confidence and new abilities.
Labar: Well, at first, I felt about seven feet tall. But now I’m used to the standing up height. It’s kind of surreal in a way…uh, concentrate more than how it feels…the big concentration is becoming one with the machine, getting use to the shift and the balance and everything that is required. That is the challenge that this team has with me.
This was the first device to win FDA approval for use in hospitals and at home, and it retails for $67,000 dollars. But there is competition for the ReWalk unit. The price should come down.
The tests here and at five other VA centers are to determine how well it works, how much training is involved and whether insurance companies or the government might subsidize it. And, there is a market.
Dr. Ashraf Gorgey: How many people in a wheelchair? So, in U.S. it’s like 1.2 million and I’m just talking spinal cord injury.
Dr. Ashraf Gorgey is the Director of Spinal Cord Injury Research.
Dr. Ashraf Gorgey: ...and approximately 46 thousand veterans with spinal cord injury.
The major is grateful for his role in testing the device for future generations. He is convinced they will become lighter, cheaper and work better.
Fishburne: (Walking) This is not just science fiction were someone can strap themselves into an exoskeleton and become a superhero.
Labar: Oh no, my wife says the machine sounds more like Robo cop.
For Major Terry Labar, it is enough to be able to walk.
Labar: Oh I don’t feel like Iron Man. I’m just an average guy trying to help out on a study so that people, not only military, but all people with spinal cord injuries can take advantage so that they can become independent, or mostly independent, in the future.