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The Department of Veterans Affairs has agreed to pay for robotic legs that could allow scores of paralyzed veterans with spinal cord injuries to walk again.
Veterans have been petitioning the VA to do this because many cannot afford the $77,000 needed to pay for the powered exoskeleton called the ReWalk. The device was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2014 for individuals to use at home.
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VA officials told The Associated Press that that the agency sent a memorandum Dec. 10 outlining its plans to train staff to be able to provide the ReWalk.
"The research support and effort to provide eligible veterans with paralysis an exoskeleton for home use is a historic move on the part of the VA because it represents a paradigm shift in the approach to rehabilitation for persons with paralysis," said Dr. Ann Spungen, who led VA research on the system.
"The doctor told me it was impossible for me to walk, and then I crossed that threshold from the impossible to the possible."
The company, ReWalk Robotics, said it has evaluated 45 paralyzed veterans who meet the height and weight requirements for the technology — which consists of leg braces with motion sensors and motorized joints that respond to subtle changes in upper-body movement and shifts in balance.
Gene Laureano, 53, is praying his application for robotic legs will go through soon. The former Army corporal remembers the day he first tried the ReWalk at New York's James J. Peters VA Medical Center in the Bronx two years ago.
"The tears came down," said Laureano, who was left paralyzed five years ago after falling off a ladder. "I hadn't spoken to somebody standing up in so long."
"I just kept remembering the doctor told me it was impossible for me to walk, and then I crossed that threshold from the impossible to the possible," he added.
When the study ended, however, so did his ability to walk. He's been waiting to get the robotic legs ever since.
Paralyzed veterans fired off letters to VA Secretary Robert McDonald this summer.
"I guess people who have been watching the research were very anxious and had expectations this would suddenly happen once FDA approval came out, but we were still building the infrastructure to support this great device," VA spokesman Jim Connell said.
The ReWalk was invented by Israeli entrepreneur Amit Goffer, who was paralyzed in an accident in 1997. Several competing products that use similar technology — nicknamed "electronic legs"— are also being tested in U.S. rehab hospitals.
None, including the ReWalk, are fast enough or can be worn long enough to replace wheelchairs. VA pilot studies found paraplegics who used the exoskeleton as little as four hours a week for three to five months experienced better bowel and bladder function, reduced back pain, improved sleep and less fatigue.
About 42,000 veterans are paralyzed. Of them, a fraction would meet the requirement for an exoskeleton. The apparatus requires specific height and weight requirements and works for paraplegics but not for quadriplegics.
A supportive belt around the patient's waist keeps the suit in place, and a backpack holds the computer and rechargeable battery. Crutches are used for stability, and the FDA requires an assistant be nearby.
ReWalk Robotics CEO Larry Jasinski said a dozen VA centers are expected to start training staff to provide the system. The program will likely be expanded in the future.
"It definitely is a show stopper, especially in the mall with kids."
Former Army Sgt. Terry Hannigan, a 62-year-old paralyzed Vietnam veteran, was the first veteran to get the robotic legs as part of a test of the system. She uses them to walk through the mall and shop at the grocery store.
"It definitely is a show stopper, especially in the mall with kids. Some say things like 'Wow, look at Robocop!'" They ask a lot of questions, but I don't mind," Hannigan said.
When she was only using a wheelchair, she said she had to ask people to pass her things out of her reach.
"To be able to hear the conversation, not miss half of what's being said because it's over your head, that in itself is a big plus," she said.
"Now I can walk up, shake someone's hand. I can hug, kiss them. That might be a small thing, but the only other time I would get body contact was when a family member or caregiver would pick me up and put me in bed."