About 12,000 people suffer spinal cord injuries annually in the U.S., many of whom are relegated to a wheelchair for the rest of their lives, but new technology designed to help them walk once again is making its way through the FDA approval process. NY1's Erin Billups filed the following report.
Errol Samuels lost the use of his legs in 2012 after a roof collapsed onto him at an off-campus house party near his school, SUNY Delhi.
While in recovery at Mount Sinai Hospital, he saw a video of a woman overseas with a spinal cord injury walking in a marathon with the help of a robotic exoskeleton.
"They told me they would be getting it here," he says.
Samuels was chosen to take part in a Mount Sinai study. Participants test out the ReWalk, an exoskeleton designed by Argo Medical Technologies, and the Ekso, by Ekso bionics.
"We're really interested in looking at how long does it take them to learn to use the device with little to no assistance," says Allan Kozlowski, assistant professor at Mount Sinai Rehabilitation Medicine.
Samuels has already tried it more than a dozen times.
"I'm getting better and better as we go along," he says.
With help, he makes it up and down stairs, and he can do laps pretty much on his own.
"You're taller. You can reach things," he says. "It's way better than sitting. Everything's better than sitting."
The study is exploring how the time spent walking affects other bodily functions.
"There are many things that people can get from walking that they cannot get from wheeling," Kozlowski says. "People who sit in a wheelchair are at risk of having pressure sores. Their internal organs slow down, so they have difficulty with bowel management and bladder management."
At this point, not everyone with a spinal cord injury would be eligible to use an exosuit. Time since the injury occurred is a major factor.
"The more time that's elapsed since you've had your injury, the more likely that you're going to have weak bones or tight joints that would make it difficult for you to actually fit into the device and allow it to move with you," Kozlowski says.
However, that could change as the devices are developed. Eventually, they may be able to accommodate more people and do even more for those using them now.
"Maybe there'll be smarter bionic suits, smaller bionic suits," Samuels says. "As far as right now, it's not that bad, 'cause it may seem bulky, but it seems perfect to me."
Maybe one day, Samuels says, we'll see him in a marathon.