Paraplegics Take First Steps With New Device

Company that makes exoskeletons in San Diego for physical therapy conference

By Lea Sutton
|  Wednesday, Jan 23, 2013  |  Updated 7:18 AM PDT
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Theresa Hannigan is an Army veteran who uses the Re-walk Rehabilitation System, an exoskeleton for those whose lower limbs are paralyzed. The unique device is helping wounded vets find ways to walk again. NBC 7's Lea Sutton reports.

Theresa Hannigan is an Army veteran who uses the Re-walk Rehabilitation System, an exoskeleton for those whose lower limbs are paralyzed. The unique device is helping wounded vets find ways to walk again. NBC 7's Lea Sutton reports.

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An exoskeleton currently in development may soon provide paraplegics with the ability to walk again.

For Army veteran Theresa Hannigan, taking a few simple steps is like a dream. She was exposed to a nerve agent as a Vietnam-era medic, and the treatment left her paralyzed from the waist down.

A permanent condition, Hannigan thought she'd never walk again.

"It's like a death sentence. You don't want to live - you have to find the stamina you have to find a reason to go on", said Hannigan.

But then Hannigan was asked to take part in research for the Re-Walk Rehabilitation system, and a year ago November, she took her first steps. The Re-Walk is an exoskeleton that allows paraplegics to walk. It's unique because the patient's body tells the device what to do.

“My foot clears the floor, I shift the weight. As soon as I shift the weight it cycles my leg to go forward again," said Hannigan.

Hannigan says for her, the Re-Walk means independence; a push of a button takes her up or down stairs, and before impossible tasks are now made simple - like getting a glass from her cabinet.

But in some ways right now, it's somewhat of a tease. Re-Walk is cleared for rehabilitation centers, but the personal version is still being approved by the FDA.

Hannigan moves back to her wheel chair before heading home, but with a restored sense of hope, and an eye on the future.

"It gives me back my hope -- I can look to the future and say you know what, if I choose I can sit in a wheel chair, but if I want to walk, I can walk now," said Hannigan.

The study she took part in was funded by the VA and she says they've agreed to pay for her re-walk once the personal version has been approved by the FDA.

The system costs around $65,000.

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