MIGHTY TACTICAL
Ed Drohan

Marine regains mobility with robotic exoskeleton gear

It took Marine Corps veteran Tim Conner more than a year of training and waiting, but it paid off. He was finally able to take home his new (exoskeleton) legs.

Conner has used a wheelchair since 2010. An accident left him with a spinal cord injury, and he is the first veteran at Tampa Bay VA Medical Center to be issued an exoskeleton for home use. The robotic exoskeleton, made by ReWalk, provides powered hip and knee motion that lets Conner stand upright and walk.

Before being issued his own exoskeleton, Conner underwent four months of training, then took a test model home for four months as a trial run. He then had to wait several more months for delivery. He was so excited about getting it that he mistakenly arrived a week early to pick it up.


"They said, "You're here early, it's the thirtieth,'" Conner said with a laugh. "I was like, that's not today. I looked at my phone and said, 'Oh my God, I'm excited, what can I say.'"

For Conner, the most significant advantage of the exoskeleton is being able to stand and walk again. Which, in turn, motivates him to stay healthy.

Tim Conner and the team that helped him walk again. From left, Chief of Staff Dr. Colleen Jakey, Cassandra Hogan, Kathryn Fitzgerald, Brittany Durant, and Spinal Cord Injury Service Chief Dr. Kevin White.

"I'm not 3-and-a-half, 4 feet tall anymore. I'm back to 5-8," Conner said. "Not only can I stand up and look eye-to-eye to everybody. I'm not always kinking my neck looking up at life. It's been able to allow me to stay motivated, to stay healthy, because you have to be healthy to even do the study for this program. That is going to keep me motivated to stay healthy and live longer than what could be expected for the average person in my situation."

Exoskeleton

The exoskeleton is an expensive piece of equipment, with some versions costing as much as $100,000. According to Dr. Kevin White, chief of the Tampa Bay VA spinal cord injury service, that is why the hospital has been conducting research on the units.

"We wanted to know that the patient when they get it, they're actually going to utilize it in the community," said White. "If they're showing that benefit, the VA has made a commitment to make sure that any veteran who needs it and qualifies, whether it's a spinal cord injury and even stroke. That they have that opportunity, and we provide it free of charge."

Walking in the exoskeleton is like "a mixture between Robocop, Ironman, and Forrest Gump," said Conner. "It is pretty cool, especially when you're walking and people are like, 'Oh my God, look at this guy. He's a robot.' But I can't imagine walking without it, so it's just a normal way of walking. It feels the same way it did if I didn't have a spinal cord injury."

This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.