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Exoskeleton robot helps spinal cord patients stand and walk

A Michigan hospital is working with a robot that’s designed to help people with spinal cord injuries walk again.

DMC Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan in Detroit is one of 10 hospitals in the nation trying out Ekso – a battery-powered exoskeleton.

Patients with spinal cord injuries fit entirely into the robotic frame, which helps them stand and walk.

Diane Patzer was one of three RIM physical therapists who worked with patients during the initial trial of the Ekso.

She says the device weighs about 50 pounds, but the patient doesn't feel the weight because the Ekso is self-sustaining.

"Once they're standing, we spend some time on balance and weight shifting, because a patient has to be in the correct position before they can take a step," Patzer explains. "And then the therapist pushes a button for stepping, and the robot takes a step for them."

She says the patients who participated in the trial had to have some upper body strength. Some wore straight leg braces. She says the difference with the Ekso is that the knee is able to bend.

"To see the looks on their faces when they actually saw their legs taking those normal-looking steps, and to see the looks on the family members -- we had tears, we had smiles, we had the whole gamut of emotions," Patzer says. "It was really awesome to be part of it."

She says RIM tested Ekso on six patients and will get a new unit to use for patient therapy this spring.

Patzer says the ultimate goal is to have a home device for patients, but that technology likely won't be ready for  another couple of years. She also says insurance companies may balk at covering the exoskeleton because of its cost, which she didn't disclose.

However, she says  helping patients with spinal cord injuries stand upright will help reduce secondary complications and keep patients physiologically and psychologically healthier.