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James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital - Tampa, Florida

 

First Veteran issued exoskeleton for home use

Testing out the new exoskeleton

Veteran Tim Conner tests his new exoskeleton with help from ReWalk representative Kathryn Fitzgerald and research nurse Brittany Durant.

By Ed Drohan
Wednesday, June 5, 2019
It took Marine Corps Veteran Tim Conner more than a year of training and waiting, but it paid off May 30 when he got to take home his new legs.

Conner, who has used a wheelchair since a motocross accident in 2010 left him with a spinal cord injury, is the first Veteran at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital to be issued an exoskeleton for home use.  The robotic exoskeleton made by ReWalk provides powered hip and knee motion that will let Conner stand upright and walk in his home and in the community.

Before being issued the exoskeleton, Conner underwent four months of in-hospital training, then took one to his Jacksonville-area home for four months as a trial run.  He then had to wait several more months as the application process made its way through the system.  He was so excited about getting it that he mistakenly showed up a week early thinking it was the date to pick it up.

“They said, “You’re here early, it’s the 30th,’” 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 biggest advantage of the exoskeleton is being able to stand and walk again, which helps keep him healthy and motivated.

“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.”

Conner described walking in the exoskeleton as, “…a mixture between Robocop, Ironman and Forrest Gump,” and said he loves the look on peoples’ faces when they see him using it.

The team that made new legs possible

Veteran Tim Conner, seated, with his new exoskeleton and the team that helped make it possible for him to be the first patient at JAHVH to be issued a personal exoskeleton. From left, JAHVH Chief of Staff Dr. Colleen Jakey, Pysical Therapist Cassandra Hogan, ReWalk Representative Kathryn Fitzgerald, Research Nurse Brittany Durant and Spinal Cord Injury Service Chief Dr. Kevin White.

“It is pretty cool, especially when you’re walking, and people are like, ‘Oh my God, look at this guy.  He’s a robot,’” Conner joked.  “But on a serious side, 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.”

The exoskeleton is an expensive piece of equipment, with some versions costing as much as $100,000.  According to Dr. Kevin White, JAHVH Chief of Spinal Cord Injury Service, that is why the hospital is doing 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” White said.  “If they’re showing that benefit, the VA has made a commitment 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.”

While Conner said he’s excited about getting his own exoskeleton, he said his grandfather, a Korea and Vietnam Veteran, is probably even more excited.

“The last time he saw me in them was on July 4th, and he about cried,” Conner said.  “Now he’s been like, ‘Are you going to get them? Are your legs coming?’ He’s more excited than I am.”

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