New robot helps patients learn to walk again

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Bertrand de Gabriac, 72, was vacationing in Long Island, NY in July when he started having lower back pain. A few days later, he couldn’t walk.

He and his wife quickly flew home to Santa Barbara, where Cottage Hospital diagnosed de Gabriac with an autoimmune disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome. His body’s immune system was attacking his nervous system.

He began taking antibiotics and getting better. But, he needed to learn how to walk again.

At Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital, he began using a new robotic device called the Ekso, a skeletal suit that hooks to a patient’s body and supports them as they walk. The developer, Ekso Bionics, began selling the product to hospitals after receiving FDA clearance in April. Currently, only eight hospitals in the state of California have one. The price tag is $150,000.

“I didn’t know where it started and where it ended,” said de Gabriac about the first time he saw the device two weeks ago. Now, he’s up and walking.

KCRW’s Larry Perel visited de Gabriac to see the Ekso in action.

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Doctors of physical therapy Noah Gaines (left) and Amber Gonzalez (right) adjust the Ekso to fit de Gabriac’s body measurements. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Who does it help?

The Ekso is for patients who are unable to walk due to stroke or spinal cord injury, but who have the potential to walk. Since Cottage purchased it in April, the Ekso has helped 17 patients.

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To walk in the Ekso, the patient is fully strapped into the suit while battery powered motors drive the hip and knee joints. Ekso adapts to the patients’ progress as they walk. “It measures how much assistance the patient needs,” said Amber Gonzalez, a doctor of physical therapy at Cottage. “It provides them full support for them to build their confidence and take basically perfect steps.”

What’s the hardest part about using the Ekso?

For de Gabriac, it was standing up. “It looks easy because you’ve got the Ekso, but nothing can be done without your will and energy,” he said.

Is it working so far?

Yes, according to doctors of physical therapy Amber Gonzalez and Noah Gaines. Before Cottage had the Ekso, patients who were in a situation like Bertrand came along slower. “[Without the Ekso], we would have waited longer to get him up and standing,” said Gaines. “We would have needed a lot more help to get him walking. We would not have been able to have him take as many steps and as many good quality steps.”

“After being in the robot I would tell him the same cues, and he would be able to carry that technique over,” Gonzalez adds.

What hospitals have the Ekso?

Other than Cottage, the only other hospitals with an Ekso are in San Diego, LA and the Bay Area. They include Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, San Diego State University, Scripps in San Diego, VA Palo Alto, Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley, Children’s Hospital in LA and the Huntington Hospital in LA.

Ekso has 67 North American customers and 126 worldwide. There are approximately 50,000 rehab facilities worldwide and 16,000 in the US that offer rehab to SCI and stroke patients.

Battery powered motors drive the hip and knee joints. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)