Johannesburg - Lying face down on the ground, 29-year-old Justin Smith was trying to remove his watch to hand over to his hijackers. They’dalready pulled him out of his car and taken his cellphone and wallet.
But in that moment, while he lay helpless grappling with his wrist, one of his hijackers opened fire and shot him in the neck.
“It was like the lights just went out, like a computer was switched off. I was suddenly blind. A few seconds later I started coming around. I could see, but I couldn’t move my legs or arms. My cousin came running out of the house, and I was calmly telling him what to do… to call my folks, call an ambulance,” recalls Smith.
That was nine years ago, at about 6pm on a Sunday, after Smith and his girlfriend had returned from his mother’s surprise 60th birthday.
As they arrived in the driveway of his cousin’s house in Edenglen where they were staying, the hijackers suddenly appeared. Smith’s girlfriend managed to run inside while Smith frantically reversed, but for reasons unknown the engine died.
It signalled the beginning of an unexpected new chapter in Smith’s life. With a bullet lodged in his C6 cervical vertebrae, he was airlifted to Milpark hospital and a week later told he was an “incomplete” quadriplegic, meaning he had some movement in his right arm.
He was effectively paralysed from the shoulders down and told he’d probably never walk again.
Though sheer determination, within three months of rehabilitation treatment, Smith was able to move his right leg and foot and after six months, with the help of a personal trainer, he was steadily gaining strength in both his upper and lower body.
“I’d achieved a considerable amount of mobility in my upper body and left leg, but I wanted to push it further. There aren’t any rehab facilities specifically for spinal cord injuries in South Africa, so I was surfing the net and discovered Project Walk, a spinal cord injury recovery centre in California. I decided to go there myself and try it,” he recalls.
A friend sponsored his nine-month stay at Project Walk, during which his workout sessions increased from three to 10 hours a week, and by the middle of 2007 Smith could walk with the assistance of a walker. At Project Walk, Smith became familiar with the Ekso, an adjustable, battery-operated bionic walking suit made to aid paraplegics get out of their wheelchairs, enabling them to walk.
The Ekso not only provides non-traditional exercise therapy for people with spinal cord injuries, but, according to Smith, it transforms the lives of those previously confined to a wheelchair.
“Some patients can walk up to 850 steps. It gives them a sense of freedom, mobility and independence, while strengthening their muscles,” he says.
On his return from the US, Smith set up his own gym in a garage and continued his daily exercise routine.
In February, he imported an Ekso from the US, at a cost of R1.7-million.
By June, he’d opened Just Walk Bionics with his partner, biokineticist Justin Jeffery, who’d joined him in California for two weeks to familiarise himself with Smith’s exercise programme and the Ekso suit.
Neuro-physiotherapist René Jordaan and biokineticist Charl Kaschula also work at Smith’s centre. A session in the Ekso suit is now part of 38-year-old Smith’s daily routine.
“I can walk with assistance, but I walk like a stroke victim, because my left side is much weaker than my right side, so the Ekso helps me achieve a reciprocal gait pattern. Even being able to stand up in the suit helps in so many ways. You can speak to people eye to eye, and it helps with cardiovascular and body function,” says Smith.
The Ekso suit works by means of a combination of motors and sensors, assisting the patient with balance and body positioning.
Initially, two helpers need to stand behind the patient, using a remote control for the suit and ensuring the patient doesn’t fall. An experienced user can independently use the remote, transfer from their wheelchair and put on the Ekso in less than five minutes.
Since Smith opened his centre, 19 disabled people have tried the bionic suit, with some coming weekly. Patients are initially tested for their range of movement, then measured for personalised settings.
“The patient will stand and walk an hour later. It’s amazing to see the reactions. One guy hadn’t walked for 13 years. Now he comes all the way from White River every month to do five sessions in a row. Another patient stood up and walked for the first time in front of his wife, who’d never known him before his accident,” says Smith.
There are only two Eksos in South Africa, at Smith’s centre and at Netcare’s rehabilitation centre in Auckland Park.
Every six or eight months, the Ekso gets upgraded to the next level of sophistication; the latest Ekso is the Variable Assist, which assists patients while allowing them to contribute strength and strategically targeting deficient aspects of their gait.
“It identifies where and when to help you. In my case, I need more help on my left side,” says Smith.
Custom-built units will be available in 2015, meaning patients will be able to order their own Ekso.
The cherry on top of Smith’s story is that in 2009, he met his wife Lesley. “We’d met through a mutual friend 10 years earlier, and she came back into my life again. When she visited her sister in the UK, I was determined to learn how to drive again while she was away. By the time Lesley returned, I was driving again on my own,” he says.
They married the next year.
Last October, despite all the odds, Lesley fell pregnant and now they have a three-month-old baby girl.
“We approached a fertility clinic to investigate our chances and the initial prognosis was not positive. I was told there was little or no hope that I would be able to father my own child. I just wasn’t prepared to accept this. I started reflexology sessions, and after a year, Lesley fell pregnant,” he says.
Every spinal cord injury or spinal affliction is unique and in many cases the patient is not only incapacitated, but has no sensation in their limbs. Nonetheless, Smith says there is always hope. “Believe me, I’ve had my fair share of blood, sweat and tears. But when you’re told that you’ll never walk again, don’t believe it. What counts is what you do to make it happen.” - Pretoria News
* Ekso helps people with spinal cord injuries, lower limb weakness or paralysis, as well as patients with neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Guillain Barre and stroke patients. Call 071 462 6643 or visit www.justwalkbionics.co.za