'E-legs' give hope to patients with spinal cord injuries

May 25, 2011 9:03:22 PM PDT
An evolving technology is giving hope to patients that have been paralyzed by spinal cord injuries. While not a cure, it does offer them a chance to step out of their wheelchairs and walk. For rehab patient Stephanie Sablan, 24, she is taking the first steps in getting her life back.

"My first steps...it was pretty incredible, they said I did really well for not knowing, and not having any previous training. I think because my injury is fairly new, my body remembers," said Sablan.

Sablan's body was devastated in a car accident earlier this year. Injuries to her spinal cord have left her paralyzed from the waist down. But on Wednesday, her legs were able to move with the help of a motorized exo-skeleton.

"The machine, it actually does just the moving for me, the only thing I'm doing is shifting my weight and keeping my balance, so it takes the steps for me," said Sablan.

The device is manufactured by Berkeley Bionics -- a pioneer in the field. A rehab specialist helps control the motorized movements. Dr. Akshat Shah is directing the investigational trial at the Valley Medical Center in Santa Clara. He believes the device both get patients out of their wheel chairs, and also keep their muscles ready for therapeutic breakthroughs such as spinal stem cell transplants.

"If you get people up, and if you get them mimicking walking, that they stimulate something called a central pattern generator and that actually leads to enhanced recovery," said Shah.

For now, Sablan's goal is learn how to walk using the device and enjoy the feeling of freedom.

"The emotional part is it's incredible. It fills that void that's been taken away from me," said Sablan.

The investigational trial is evaluating the safety of the e-legs device. If the results are positive, the company is hoping to make it commercially available in the near future.

There were two messages Sablan wanted to send: one of hope for people in wheelchairs and a two, a reminder of the dangers of texting and driving. Sablan's accident occurred in January when she was texting and driving, while not wearing her seatbelt. Since then, she has lost the ability to control her legs.

There are only two sets of e-legs in existence. They are being tested at 10 hospitals around the country. Santa Clara Valley Medical Center is the only public hospital included in the testing and the only one in California.

A spokesperson for Berkeley Bionics says if all goes as planned, e-legs would be mass produced in 2013.


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