Exoskeleton holds promise for people with spinal cord injury to walk again

By Pamela Dozois  

Contributing Writer


SCI Research Advancement recently purchased an exoskeleton from ReWalk Robotics. Over the weekend of Aug. 28, Business Development Manager Southwest and Physical Therapist Matt Fuller visited Rob Rosenberry Physical Therapy for a training session for the physical therapists who will be part of a study led by Physical Therapist Evan Howe.

The study is scheduled to last six to nine months using the exoskeleton three times a week. Rob Rosenberry has generously offered his facility in which to perform the study and to house the exoskeleton and is involved as a team member. All those involved in this project are volunteers. They include Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist Tim Gauthier, Physical Therapy Assistant Nick Simon and PTA and Athletic Trainer Michelle Leyva.

The first participant in the study is Will Ambler, founder of SCI Research Advancement.

“Standing and taking steps for the first time in decades was difficult and a significant change in perspective. Struggling to balance in an exoskeleton is a workout, but once I was able to feel a little comfortable in this new machine, I was able to look around from the position that was once normal for me,” Ambler said. “After sitting in a wheelchair for years and accustomed to looking up at everyone, it was amazing to stand next to a group of people and be the tallest person in the room. I was no longer looking at everyone’s chest but rather looking at the top of their heads.”  

After spending a few hours standing and walking in the exoskeleton it was once again time for Ambler to return to sitting in a wheelchair, until his next session, which will be ongoing during the study. 

“These are small steps aided by an exoskeleton and with more work and a little luck, these small steps will lead me and many other paralyzed people to a day when we will be able to stand and walk as I did before I suffered a spinal cord injury,” said Ambler.

“We want to see if the robot could be utilized as standard of care for future spinal cord injury rehabilitation,” said Howe. “Hopefully when the study is completed, we will be able to open it up to the spinal cord injury community.”

In order to make the exoskeleton available to the community, SCI Research Advancement and Rob Rosenberry Physical Therapy will be fundraising for the accessory kit which will allow the physical therapists to fit the device for individual use. The cost of the accessories is $13,000.

Howe is looking at this study as a three-step process. First, doing the case study which will allow the team of therapists to get data and to improve the techniques required to assist the patient walking with the exoskeleton. Second, to raise funds to allow the team to acquire the accessory kit. And third, to open it up to the spinal cord injury community and quite possibly for individuals with neurological issues or movement disorders that affect their ability to walk.

“I feel like I am carrying the torch for my father, Dr. Tony Howe, who has been with SCI Research Advancement from the beginning,” Howe said. “When Will Ambler approached me with this project, I jumped at it because I felt that we could take this to the next level and provide a piece of the puzzle from previous studies that my father and Will were involved in.” 

“Building relations with ReWalk and Matt Fuller is such a great experience and I am so excited to see what the future holds and how many more people we will be able to help,” said Howe.

For Fuller, the feeling was mutual.

“The clinicians and staff at Rob Rosenberry Physical Therapy are ideal for taking on a project like the study being conducted by SCI Research Advancement and Will Ambler,” said Fuller. “The goal of the ReWalk exoskeleton is to help someone walk, who otherwise cannot. The group at Rob Rosenberry Physical Therapy have what it takes to maximize a rehab technology like an exoskeleton and get the most out of this tool. I’m honored to be a part of this group and I look forward to seeing the progress they make using ReWalk’s innovative technology and studying techniques to further improve spinal cord injury recovery.”  

Ambler was grateful for everyone’s efforts.

“I would like to thank everyone who donated to SCI Research Advancement so we could bring an exoskeleton to Rob Rosenberry Physical Therapy,” said Ambler. “SHG Insurance and Montecito Bank & Trust, two local corporations, provided grants to help acquire the exoskeleton and a GoFundMe page was established so individuals like Karen Keller-Ross, Julie Drews, Jeff Singleton, David Belmont, Jim Fiolek, as well as family and friends could make smaller but valuable donations. I would like to thank everyone for giving us a chance to start our new project. This is only the beginning but so far, we are doing well.”

For more information, or to donate to help fund the accessory kit, visit info@rrpt.net, sci.cure.org or email ambler@silcom.com.