By Mike Dougherty and Stephanie Stahl
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A robotic device is giving hope to millions of patients who have been told their paralysis would confine them to a wheelchair. Paraplegic patients at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Center City are walking again thanks to a bionic suit.
A 47-pound machine allows Frank LaMacchia to stand on his own two feet. It’s a remarkable thing because it’s something he hasn’t done for 17 years.
“It feels amazing,” he said. “It’s overwhelming.”
Injured in a motorcycle accident, LaMacchia thought he would be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Now, the 5’9″ South Philadelphia resident is walking in a bionic suit.
“Being up on your feet makes you feel like who you are again,” he said. “When I’m in this, I feel like I’m still that guy.”
The Esko-GT system is a wearable robotic exoskeleton, that was donated to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia by Soldier Strong, a veterans group. Mary Schmidt-Read with Magee says it’s a game-changer.
“It’s all motorized and run by batteries,” she said. “The therapist will program in things based on Frank’s size, his weight and his capacity to walk.”
Schmidt-Reid says it will also help with stroke victims and others who lose motor functions.
“You always have in the back of your mind, you’re going to walk again,” says Frank. “There’s always that hope they’re going to find a cure.”
The bionic suit isn’t a cure but it allows people like Frank to stand and walk. It can also be used for stroke patients.
“It’s evolved into a system where we can actually train individuals who are getting neurological recovery back as well, as it can be a substitute for people who do not get the paralysis overturned and do not get the recovery back,” explained Schmidt-Read.
The device will provide Magee patients with state-of-the-art rehabilitation allowing them to briefly live their dream of standing and walking.
“It really does make you feel almost normal again,” said Frank as he stood wearing a beaming smile.
“After seeing him sit for so long and then you can be eye-level and feel he’s whole, it’s amazing,” said Maria McFarland who is Frank’s girlfriend.
Maria, their little girl and Frank’s mother, Dolly are all beyond excited. Dolly says seeing her son standing gives her hope.
“He’s getting there and I just always get emotional,” said Dolly. “I just can’t help it.”
Magee says the Ekso donation will allow them to treat more patients with different kinds of conditions.
There are some models that can be used outside of a hospital setting, but they cost $80,000.