Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital is now the home of a fascinating piece of technology, the Ekso GT wearable robotic exoskeleton. This FDA-approved device helps patients recovering from strokes or spinal cord injuries regain their ability to walk.
“It really is quite unique because you can help people that have the potential to walk but really aren’t walking very well or not walking at all,” said Dr. Noah Gaines, who works in physical therapy and neurology at the hospital, which is the only facility between Los Angeles and the Bay Area with the Ekso.
It works by strapping a patient into the suit, which uses battery-powered motors to drive the hip and knee joints. The key is that the patient drives the device, so the robot adapts to the patient’s progress, adjusting the amount of power to either side of the body. “The patient is really controlling the robot,” said Gaines. “The patient is telling it when to step, and the robot is sensing how much help the patient needs and is providing just enough assistance.”
Originally designed for use in the military, the Ekso does not come cheap — just one costs around $150,000. But with 17 of Cottage’s patients already being helped by the device, and more coming very soon, the Ekso is already a sound investment. Said Gaines, “We have big plans to use it more and more.”
One of the first patients is 72-year-old Bertrand de Gabriac, who is struggling with muscle weakness, numbness, and loss of reflexes caused by Guillain-Barré syndrome. “It was a great sensation to be able to stand up again,” recalled de Gabriac of his first time using the device. “I started by making 50 steps; then I ended up making 300 steps.” After about a dozen sessions, de Gabriac ditched the robot. “I walked 250 steps with a walker,” he said. “I can’t walk yet by myself, but it’s a matter of time.” Most importantly, the Ekso allowed de Gabriac to “be able to have confidence, balance, and a future.”