Bionic man takes one step at a time

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Andrew Merryweather walks with the aid of his Ekso bionic suit. Picture: Tracey Adams

Cape Town - The controller presses “start” on a hand-held device which makes a beep. On the third “beep” Andrew Merryweather lifts himself from the chair. He shifts his weight to his left leg then takes a step with his right. It is a moment of awe for the man who was told he would never walk again.

But he is walking, thanks to a bionic suit.

In 2006 Merryweather was beaten in an attack at a Claremont petrol station which left him unable to use his legs and his left arm – a tetraplegic. Doctors told him to prepare for life in a wheelchair.

But Merryweather swore he’d walk again. Seven years and one Ekso suit later, he is doing just that.

“Any kind of standing is like a breath of fresh air,” said Merryweather. He said it was an emotional experience to stand up and walk.

But it was a bitter-sweet milestone because he is renting the suit for only three months at more than $4 800 (about R47 000) a month; only if he raises around R800 000 will he be able to buy it.

Merryweather heard of “walking suits” two years ago. “My therapy had plateaued, and I was looking for something to take me to another level,” he said.

He was sceptical, and thought it was just a robotic device. But in August he flew to the UK where he tried two suits, the Ekso and the Re-Walk.

He chose the Ekso because of its rehabilitative functions. Ekso’s Barry Richards, who is training Merryweather, said: “He’s not a passenger. He has to use what function he has to enable him to walk.

“Effectively, Andrew is walking. Ekso provides the assistance to complete his step.”

Merryweather’s record walking time is 18 minutes, but it will increase with time.

Richards said the Ekso suit taught users to regain their balance and standing control by shifting their weight forward and back using crutches.

“Sensors detect if the user is in an optimal position to step forward. Only then will the device allow the user to step forward.”

Merryweather said he wanted other patients to be able to try the device over the next three months. He hopes to raise enough funds to be able to keep it.

l A fund-raiser on November 2 at the City Hall will feature Angelo Gobbato and Alan Committie. Call 084 300 6388 to book tickets.

 

Road to recovery

Andrew Merryweather’s therapy started in 2007 when he partnered with CPUT’s Human Performance Laboratory.

He began treadmill therapy and within eight weeks his leg muscles started to respond. CPUT’s Professor Simeon Davies described Merryweather as a “pioneer” who had approached his situation in an extremely positive and pragmatic manner.

Davies added that when Merryweather arrived it was “daunting as the injury he sustained was extremely acute and traumatic”.

Raeeq Gamieldien, a lab technician who has been working with Merryweather since the beginning of his therapy, said Merryweather was initially “wobbly” and could barely lift himself up from his wheelchair.

After a lot of upper body work and building his core strength, Merryweather was now a completely different person, Gamieldien said.

“He is energetic and much more independent.”

 

Suit specs

l The suit was designed in a robotics lab at the University of Berkeley, California, in 2000.

l Ekso was officially launched in the US in 2011.

l By the end of this year there will be 60 Ekso suits in use, 4 000 users and more than 3 million steps taken worldwide.

l There is a “zero-fall” rate.

l The suit has four motors: two at the hips and two at the knees.

l Two batteries provide the power source and enable four to six hours of walking.

l Ekso weighs 23kg.

l The user must weigh less than 100kg and be between 1.57m and 1.89m tall.

l A refurbished Ekso suit costs over $1 million to buy.

l Merryweather’s suit is the first one in Cape Town. - Cape Argus

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