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Paralyzed Marine walks thanks to ReWalk technology

Some 217,000 Americans suffer from spinal cord injuries. The injuries are by definition severe, and often leave people with varying degrees of paralysis. But now, a new company based in Israel, called ReWalk Robotics (RWLK), says it can help up to 80% of those people walk again using exoskeleton technology.

It’s a phenomenon so cool that the television show Glee featured the technology as a “miracle” in a Christmas episode. When Capt. Derek Herrera (who is paralyzed) walked down the streets of New York using the device on a recent visit, he was stopped and congratulated by numerous passerbys.

Capt. Derek Herrera’s story

“I thought a lot about this and I’ll never accept my current state,” said Herrera. “Every day I’m going to continue to try and progress, try and get better. And the fact that there’s people out there designing this technology to try and improve it, to try and continue to make it better, it’s inspiring.”

Herrera was leading an operation in Afghanistan when he was shot in the shoulder. The bullet travelled down Herrera’s spine; he was conscious through the entire ordeal and knew almost instantly he was paralyzed.

“I was leading a team of the highest trained Marines in the Marine Corps, doing the things I signed up to do to defend our nation, and that was taken from me in an instant,” he said.

“I fell over and I kind of felt a stinging and pulsing sensation in my back and immediately got on the radio, called my team and let ‘em know that I was injured,” he said, describing the attack. “I tried to pick myself up and tried to triage myself and quickly realized that I couldn’t do much and that I was paralyzed from the chest down.”

He did ultimately lose consciousness during his evacuation due to complications from the wound. When he woke up on base, the doctors confirmed what he already knew.

“For whatever reason, I don’t know why to this day exactly why this happened, it just didn’t... it didn’t phase me,” said Herrera. He immediately wanted to know what came next, and when the rehab work would start.

Capt. Derek Herrera and his wife during his Purple Heart ceremony. Credit: Derek Herrera
Capt. Derek Herrera and his wife during his Purple Heart ceremony. Credit: Derek Herrera

From Afghanistan, Herrera flew to Germany and then back to the states. He was ultimately transferred to a Florida hospital that specialized in spinal cord injuries. It was here that he first saw exoskeleton technology.

By the time he was back to his home base in California, he knew he wanted to try it; he was determined to walk again. “I kind of just called incessantly until someone would talk to me at these exoskeleton companies. I had them bring down a device to my clinic in Camp Pendleton and demo the device and learn about the technology,” said Herrera.

Herrera tested more exoskeletons than just ReWalk, but decided he liked ReWalk’s device best. It’s also the only exoskeleton cleared for home and rehab use by the FDA.

“I don’t use it all day everyday,” he said. “I’ll put it on and walk an hour or so everyday.”

Herrera said it’s liberating to continue his therapy at home. His wife took a two-day training course with ReWalk and is qualified to assist him when he uses the device. Herrera says she has been a devoted partner during the process, and as a trained ballerina and dance instructor, her insight on how he moves has actually helped him progress.

During our shoot in the video above, a ReWalk employee helped him walk.

Learning to walk again

The machine is powered by batteries and a motor that live in a backpack worn by the ReWalk user, or walker. The walker also wears a wristband that lets them control the device.

When the walker is ready to stand, they press a button on their wrist. When they’re ready to walk, they press a button for that. The device has a sensor in it similar to an iPhone motion sensor. When the walker leans forward, the device senses that and activates the exoskeleton to make a step.

“It just takes a little bit of time, a little bit of training to get used to, to understand your balance and how this machine will move you around,” Herrera said.

In Capt. Herrera’s case, being a 6’2’’, highly athletic man has actually made learning to walk again more challenging. His muscles are so strong that they sometimes continue to fire even though he cannot control them; this results in tremors that can sometimes interfere with “ReWalk”-ing.

Still, he is determined.

“For my retirement ceremony [in November] I would love to be able to walk out and receive my paper work and retire the same way I came into the Marine Corp – not in a wheelchair. And I’m pretty confident I can do that,” he said.

While walking in and of itself is the best reward for Capt. Herrera, there are a slew of other benefits as well. Many people don’t realize that para- and quadraplegics are at increased risk for a variety of diseases: urinary tract infections, GI infections, diabetes and more. Not to mention the loss of bone and muscle mass that comes from limited mobility.

“What do you have for expenses in every day life, relative to medications because of your spinal cord injury, and because of the injuries that happen? Over the time that you own this it will be a reduction in cost over all based on what you are likely to save and we have more and more data to support that,” said Jasinski.

One of the biggest researchers of the potential benefits of this technology has actually been the James J. Peters VA medical center in the Bronx, New York, Jasinski said.

How much does a ReWalk cost?

Capt. Derek Herrera at a MARSOC-led fundraiser for his ReWalk exoskeleton. Credit: Derek Herrera
Capt. Derek Herrera at a MARSOC-led fundraiser for his ReWalk exoskeleton. Credit: Derek Herrera

Devices cost just under $70,000. When Herrera decided to purchase the device it was still experimental and not covered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, so Herrera turned to a non-profit called the Marine Special Forces Operation Command, or MARSOC, to help with the funds.

“They were like, ‘Yea, no brainer, you wanna walk again. Let’s get you walking,’” he said. They held a fundraiser in San Diego near his base and due to a huge outpouring of support raised the funds in just a few days.

For others, there are other ways to afford the technology. ReWalk CEO Larry Jasinski says the Department of Veterans Affairs has now approved the technology.

“We’re now working with the private insurers to help people pay for it,” he added.

Related: ReWalk CEO Larry Jasinski discusses FDA approval and what’s next

“So far in Germany where we’ve had a few more months to work on it, we’ve had the three larger insurance companies in Germany decide to pay for this. Our expectation in the United States is that it will be given very strong consideration and has a reasonable case to get paid for. So for someone [trying to afford] it, the insurance will help them, because from the insurance point of view it makes the patients healthier and it’s gonna work out for them.”

Other exoskeleton technologies

ReWalk is not the only company developing and selling this exoskeleton technology, but it is the only company approved by the FDA to do so in the United States.

Last Friday, the company made its debut on the Nasdaq, and the stock jumped over 100% in its first few days of trading. Forbes published an article asking if ReWalk was the next Tesla.

But ReWalk does acknowledge that its first mover advantage may not last forever. “We operate in a competitive industry that is subject to rapid technological change, and we expect competition to increase,” the company wrote in its F-1 filing with the SEC.

But the company still sees expanded use for its products. While current users tend to be paraplegics who are injured in traumatic accidents – usually auto accidents – the company hopes to help everyone who is wheelchair bound, including patients with diseases like multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy.

Also on the company’s to-do list? Helping the founder and creator walk.

Israeli Amit Goffer is the brains behind the company. He was paralyzed in an ATV accident in 1997 and vowed that he would walk again. Goffer developed this technology so he could get back on his feet.

Because he’s quadriplegic, Goffer cannot use any of his limbs, so the technology is not quite advanced enough to help him. But he has helped hundreds of other people achieve his dream. The company hopes to help Goffer himself achieve it within the next few years.