New robotic walking system gives hope to people with paralysis

Pushing Boundaries, Washington’s only exercise-therapy center for people with paralysis, is gearing-up to introduce the state’s first robotic walking system, the Lokomat, early next year. The machine will be available for public use and may help those with paralysis regain strength and, in some cases, learn to walk again.

The Redmond-based facility held a luncheon at Bellevue’s Meydenbauer Center Nov. 6 to raise funds for the much-anticipated machine. Together with friends, family, and clients, Pushing Boundaries raised close to $90,000. The total cost for a Lokomat is $300,000.

“It (the luncheon) turned out really well, better than we could have hoped for,” said Shawna Hanson, the Event and PR Coordinator for Pushing Boundaries.

Featured at the event were client testimonies, a video describing the machine and its use, as well as a speech from co-founder Sharon Northrup.

“Pushing Boundaries started as a result of an injury Allan (her husband) sustained while we were both driving over I-90 seven years ago,” Northrup explained. The accident left Allan paralyzed from the mid-chest down.

They decided to move to San Diego where their daughter had discovered a new type of exercise therapy. Eventually, Sharon and Allan returned to Washington and founded a similar facility.

The mission of Pushing Boundaries is to improve the lives and health of people with paralysis through intensive and creative exercise-therapy programs, whether the condition is recent or long term.

The Lokomat is an example of the creative therapy that Pushing Boundaries emphasizes that could reverse “learned non-use” in affected muscle groups.

Here’s how it works. A person strapped into a harness is suspended over a treadmill, where they are attached to robotic sensors. They help move the legs in a natural walking pattern that is even, consistent and can be sustained over long periods of time.

According to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, it is believed that this repetitive walking pattern helps the brain and spinal cord work together to re-route neural signals that may have been damaged due to illness or injury. The resulting “re-connection” helps the body regain mobility that has been lost due to injury, stroke or other neurological disorders such as Multiple Sclerosis.

The institute, which began clinical trials of this therapy in March 2002, claims other benefits that may include regained muscle strength and improved circulation. The weight-bearing nature of the machine may also help strengthen bones at risk for osteoporosis.

“Locomotion therapy is becoming something that’s more widely accepted,” said Hanson. “Doctors are learning that there are things that can build around the site of the injury to make a new connection.”

Jerry Daniels, an exercise therapist and certified personal trainer at Pushing Boundaries, explained how exercise therapy, like gait-training, helps to improve mobility. He compared the spine to a “super-highway.”

“Just because the highway’s been choked off, doesn’t mean we can’t go around the back roads. The body is always trying to fix itself; it wants to get better! If you help it by being active, it will work with you.”

Devin Givens, a young man and client at Pushing Boundaries, is an example of this concept.

In August 2007, Givens was in an all-terrain vehicle accident while vacationing with his family in Canada. Despite wearing all the required safety gear, the crash left him with three broken vertebrae. Luckily, Givens’ spinal cord was not severed and he maintained sensation throughout his body. However, he was left unable to walk.

“Virtually, he had a little bit of movement and a lot of spasms,” said his mother, Shannon Vernerey.

Both Givens and his mother were told that what mobility he could regain in the first 12 to 18 months following his accident would be it.

“I was told by the doctor in Canada that there was nothing we could do for him,” Vernerey said.

Then in December 2007, they came to Pushing Boundaries. There, Givens and his mother encountered an optimistic atmosphere where the vision is to inspire hope for those living with paralysis to do things they never thought possible.

At first, Givens could only stabilize himself while sitting on the edge of a mat.

“Today, he is standing at the parallel bars and taking some steps. He’s still regaining movement, he hasn’t plateaued at all,” said Vernerey.

She and Givens look forward to the boundaries they will continue to break through when the Lokomat arrives.

“As soon as I get on it, I’ll take off. Connections will be made,” said Givens.

Vernerey said she is totally convinced that the machine will help her son.

“With the success of this machine, how it helps the body reconnect and regenerate the nervous system. … I am totally 100 percent believing that he will walk again in his lifetime. There isn’t one doubt in my mind.”

William Holmes is another Pushing Boundaries client who is “psyched” for the Lokomat to arrive.

“You get to exercise. It’s going to be amazing! To have something that’s going to walk you. I mean, I haven’t walked in seven and a half months,” Holmes said.

He became paralyzed from the chest down as a result of a motorcycle accident along Seattle's Lake City Way last February.

Mike Buckel, one of Holmes’ trainers, is looking forward to the Lokomat as an alternative method of gait-training exercise. Clients currently practice walking on a light gait treadmill where they rely on trainers to set the pace and place their feet. The process is often slow and difficult.

“I think it’s going to be so much easier having a machine that walks somebody with the proper gait pattern rather than us doing it in cadence. Five minutes of doing that thrashes your body,” Buckel explained.

Another benefit of having a Lokomat at Pushing Boundaries is public access.

“We identified that this type of therapy was not available to anyone in the state of Washington,” said Tricia Lazzar, director of Pushing Boundaries.

“That’s the benefit of having it here; anybody who has the ability to go through gait-training would have the opportunity to use it,” she said.

Lazzar explained that there is a Lokomat in Portland at the Oregon Health Sciences University. However, it is used for stroke rehabilitation and not available for public use.

There will be no extra cost for client’s to use the Lokomat at Pushing Boundaries. An hourly fee of $80, some of which can be subsidized by the facility, includes the use of all equipment during one-on-one therapy sessions with a qualified trainer. Clients are required to come in for two-hour sessions at a minimum of two days a week.

“Bringing the Lokomat to Pushing Boundaries will impact literally hundreds of people in the state of Washington that are affected by paralysis each year,” Northrup explained at the luncheon.

The numbers alone reinforce her statement. According to Northrup, there are almost two spinal cord injuries a day in Washington state.

Northrup ended her speech by saying that whether “we want to believe it or not, tomorrow, the next day and every day there will be people who have things happen to them who will need us.

“We cannot change how many are injured,” she said, “but we can change how many we can help.”

For more information on the Lokomat or to make an appointment for a tour of the Pushing Boundaries facility, visit its Web site at www.pushing-boundaries.org or send an e-mail to info@pushing-boundaries.org.

Brittni Reinertsen is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.