One of the first things you notice about Mike Loura is how easily he smiles.
The 43-year-old Darien resident smiles when talking about his daughters. He chuckles softly when asked his age. He even manages a sad smile when speaking about the accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down about four years ago.
Loura was hit by a car while riding his bicycle in 2008 and broke his back -- the only bone, he noted, that he broke in the accident. Since then, he's used a wheelchair. But for the past several weeks, Loura has been able to do something he wasn't sure he'd ever do again -- stand up and walk.
Loura is an outpatient at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare in Wallingford, one of only 20 facilities in the world to offer Ekso, a robotic exoskeleton that allows people with lower-extremity paralysis or weakness to walk. Gaylord is the only place in Connecticut to offer the device, and Loura is one of five patients of the facility using it.
For now, he can use the device only at Gaylord, and he requires the assistance of two physical therapists to walk in the device. But it still seems miraculous to him. "I'm still in awe of looking down and seeing my feet move," he said.
Loura demonstrated how the suit works Thursday afternoon as Gaylord physical therapists Erika Malits and Erin Prastine helped strap the contraption on him. The battery-powered device weighs about 50 pounds, with motors in the hip and knee region that allow for standing, walking and sitting.
Initially, two therapists have to assist the patient using the Ekso, using a control pad to program parameters such as step length and speed. He also has to use a walker, but eventually, Loura said, he'll be able to control Ekso himself using special crutches.
Ekso, developed by Ekso Bionics in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the few devices of its kind on the market. It costs about $130,000 and isn't covered by insurance because it's still new technology, said Dr. David Rosenblum, medical director of rehabilitation at Gaylord. Though Gaylord has used the Ekso with only a handful of patients, the impact it has had, physically and emotionally, on those using it is astounding, Rosenblum said.
"One of the folks we had stand up with this, stood up and tears just flowed down her face," he said.
For Loura, the device opens a world of possibilities. He talked about a wedding he went to a few years ago with his two daughters, now 10 and 12, and they wondered whether he'd be able to dance with them at their weddings. "There might be a possibility now that I can do it," he said. And surely, that would bring a smile to his face.
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