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Motorized exoskeleton helps paraplegic patients to stand, walk

ST. PAUL - A few false starts, a whir of motors and Evans Bille was off and walking down the hospital hallway.

ST. PAUL – A few false starts, a whir of motors and Evans Bille was off and walking down the hospital hallway.

It might not have been remarkable for most people-except Bille hasn't had the use of his legs for nearly a year.

The White Bear Lake 22-year-old was leaning on a deck railing last August when the railing gave way. The fall left him with much of his spine fused and no feeling from the chest down.

That's still the case, but he's one of a small group of paraplegic patients at Regions Hospital who are trying a new motorized exoskeleton that lets them stand upright and, with no small effort, walk.

The device, called ReWalk, is made by a Massachusetts company. It was approved last summer by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration-the only one of its kind cleared for use in the home or in public.

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Those who have used it see life-changing potential in ways great and small-even as they struggle to convince their insurers to cover the considerable price tag.

"That feeling of all of a sudden being 6 feet tall again," Bille said, "is surreal."

He's one of three Regions patients who spent a few hours working with the device Wednesday. It most closely resembles a pair of robotic legs. Motors strap to the outside of the patient's thighs and calves, with a battery pack and a computer in the back.

It's controlled by a wristwatch. The motors move the legs as the patient uses crutches to balance.

Invented by Amit Goffer, an Israeli man who is quadriplegic, the device is still rare-there are just 74 private users worldwide. The company is currently looking for a hospital to partner with and run clinics to give patients a look at it.

"The goal is to bring more access," said Lina Alsauskaite, the company's clinical training manager in the Midwest.

This month's clinic was the third at Regions-the only hospital in Minnesota to use the device so far. Bille, the first patient to strap it on back in April, can now motor through the corridors with some proficiency-aided by an upper body sculpted by sports and carpentry.

For Angelique Lele, the reigning "Ms. Wheelchair Minnesota, Wednesday was the first try. She was paralyzed in the legs three years ago in a fall from a trapeze.

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By the time her physical therapists got her strapped into the ReWalk, she joked she was ready for a map. When she stood up for the first time, she issued an audible "whoa."

It's "so funny," she said, "what you forget."

It was the first time, too, for Scott Collier, a Montgomery farmer who was paralyzed a year and a half ago when heavy equipment collapsed on him as he changed a tire.

The session left him sweaty, exhausted and satisfied.

"It was nice standing up, stretching your legs and looking eye to eye with everyone," he said.

Dr. Steven Jackson, a spinal cord specialist at Regions, said the device offers a handful of health benefits. It builds bone strength, which atrophies when limbs don't bear weight. It's a form of aerobic exercise. It alleviates sitting sores and cuts down on intestinal and bowel issues that crop up in patients who can't stand.

Moreover, he said, it can offer a huge psychological lift to people who had to cope with a sudden and harsh change when they were injured.

"I believe the mental benefits from it cannot be overstated," he said.

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Collier sees it as a way to regain the freedom to do things as simple as reaching the oil dipstick in his car to as meaningful as dancing at his daughter's wedding.

"It gets to be real hard on a person, that you want to do this and you can't do this," he said.

He's trying to convince his insurance company to see things the same way. The device costs $70,000 per unit, and the insurer thus far has refused to cover it on the grounds that it isn't a necessity.

Bille is in the same position, having fought similar battles over other mobility and therapy devices. He and Lele both have funding pages set up with GoFundMe.com to help defer medical expenses.

"How can a group look at your paperwork," Collier said, "and say it's not a medical necessity when at the end of the day, they get up and walk out to their cars?"

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