South Texas VA Receives Robotic Gift

Jan 11, 2018

In a dedication ceremony Wednesday, the national veterans organization SoldierStrong donated a robotic exoskeleton to the South Texas Veterans Healthcare System. The suit, made by Ekso Bionics, will help inpatients at the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center relearn how to walk after severe injury.

The Ekso suit looks like a cross between a chair and a harness. Once patients strap in, the suit can sense delicate muscle movements and mimic the motions involved in walking.

“The robot and the battery pack allows them to ambulate,” said Dr. Blessen Eapen of the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center. “The purpose is for gait training and to mitigate compensatory strategies that they learn after injury.”

Since early December, the South Texas VA has been training its physical therapists to use the technology.

Allen Turner, a former Marine, volunteered to show off the Ekso’s features, as a team of physical therapists sounded off a safety checklist as they assisted him with the suit.

Ekso suit
Credit Contributed photo

“It's tight. Everything's real tight,” he said after suiting up. “It's supposed to work your body for you, work your legs for you. It was little awkward at first, but it's getting better.”

Prior to the demonstration, Turner had been working with the exoskeleton for about four days. By Wednesday, he was able to walk the hallways of the Polytrauma Center.

Without the suit, Turner struggles with his stride and has balance issues.

The Ekso suit has a hefty price tag of about $150,000. But it's worth it to Chris Meek, founder of SoldierStrong, the organization that donated the suit. He said watching vets walk again never gets old.  

“You know, you see it a hundred times and it's awesome every time,” said Meek, whose organization has now donated 15 exoskeletons in total, 12 of which went to VA medical centers.

Meek said his rationale for selecting South Texas Veterans Healthcare System was simple.

“We chose this location for the Polytrauma Center, knowing the size of the veteran population that they serve and knowing that this is one of the top polytrauma facilities in the country,” he said. “Not only in the VA but in general. It was just a natural fit.”

The Polytrauma Center has a large interdisciplinary team that involves physical therapy, occupational, nursing, speech therapy, recreational therapy and psychology services.

Eapen added that patients who use the technology notice immediate and long-term benefits.

“Quality of life changes for some of these veterans and service members because they may have not ambulated for a while,” Eapen said. “Just being able to sit up or stand up and walk is a huge deal for their mental health, outlook and prognosis over time.”

The Ekso suit relies on technology developed over the last two decades. So far, it has been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration for use with stroke and spinal cord injury patients. It is also being studied for use with traumatic brain injuries.

Carson Frame can be reached at carson@tpr.org or on Twitter @carson_frame