New technology could change Darien father's life
At around 8 a.m. on a Saturday in 2008, Sue Loura's world dissolved into chaos.
The doorbell rang, and standing outside was a young police officer who asked if her husband, Mike, was out for a bike ride.
Her daughters, Michaela and Amanda, who were 5 and 7 at the time, stood at her side. Sue told the officer yes, her husband was on a bike ride and the officer responded that there had been an accident.
"`You need to come now,'" she remembers him saying.
"We were like ... what?" Sue said. "It was terrifying. The girls didn't understand."
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Mike, who was 38 at the time, had been training for a triathlon when he was hit by a car, breaking his back and leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
When she first arrived at the hospital, doctors weren't immediately sure if he was paralyzed, but Sue said that was the last thing on her mind.
"That was horrible enough, but he did have a lot of other traumatic injuries," she said.
Mike had a "terrible contusion" on his head, a collapsed lung, a chip in his knee and a lot of road rash, according to Sue.
"He was in bad shape," she said. "We weren't even really dealing with the paralysis. We were more like, holy crap, is he going to make it?"
Mike remained in the intensive care unit where he was heavily sedated for a month. He remained completely unaware of his paralysis until he woke up.
"I mean I was conscious throughout the whole event: when I got hit by the car; when I got picked up by the ambulatory people; brought to the hospital; and still I didn't know that I was paralyzed," Mike said. "When I was out of [the sedation] that's when I realized things were different."
He was moved to a standard room in Norwalk Hospital where he performed inpatient rehabilitation for two weeks before transferring to Kessler, a rehabilitation center in Saddle Brook, N.J.
At Kessler, Mike started coming to grips with the impact of the tragedy.
"I learned how to do everything again: put on your shoes; get dressed; tie your shoes; brush your teeth; put your contacts in," Mike said. He started with very weak "trunk" muscles, so he was constantly falling forward or left or right.
"Learning how to get dressed was awful," Mike said. "When you're in the hospital for that many weeks you lose about 75 percent of your strength, so to get my shoes and a pair of pants on was very frustrating. It just took forever, and by the time you got your stuff on it was pretty much like lunch time."
Armed with a new set of survival skills, Mike also learned to laugh at himself while at Kessler. He shared a room with a surfer who suffered the same injury -- a severed spinal cord.
"At the time, we hadn't really talked," Mike said. "He was in bed having dinner, and I was in my chair having dinner looking out the window. I went to grab my fork, and it fell on the floor."
Unfortunately, given the state that Mike was in, he couldn't bend down and get it.
Mike said his roommate responded immediately with "Dude, that sucks."
"I just had to forget about the fork and start using the spoon," Mike said smiling. "We had some good times over there."
His time spent in recovery included plenty of ups and downs, but "mostly downs," he said. However, he never lost sight that he was lucky to be alive, though.
"Knowing that I was alive was great," Mike said. "That was my foundation of trying to get through this. There were some far worse patients at Kessler."
Every once in a while he would go up to the traumatic brain unit at Kessler, and that made him feel a little better about his injury.
"I really felt for those folks," Mike said.
It wasn't long before he was laughing at himself again, though.
"My grandmother had brought some soup for me in a bag and I don't know why, but I needed to warm it up so I put it in the microwave," Mike said. "And it started sparking inside the microwave, so I was like ... this isn't supposed to happen."
When he opened the microwave a flame started, and the bag caught on fire.
"So then I just casually rolled off the nursing unit and asked them to help," Mike said. "They said `I'll be right there, I'll be right there,' and that's when I was like `No you need to come now.'"
"That was quite exciting," Mike said, laughing.
When he finally returned home, the family quickly realized that it wasn't worth the emotional pain and effort to stay in that house, and the emotional roller coaster continued. With a desire to move past the accident the Loura family moved from their old house across town in Darien and into their new house on Scout Trail, where they had they had handicap ramps and an adaptable kitchen and bathroom installed.
"It was probably a good thing that we were selling that place and not fixing it up because those memories will still always be there, and sometimes it would be quite hurtful," Mike said. "It's nice coming into a new fresh home with the girls."
Memories including sledding with his daughters and playing outside with them, not being able to work on the lawn or in the garden, would be constant reminders of what Mike lost with his injury.
Sue was quick to add that Mike had been very outdoorsy prior to the accident, and that they were all about doing lawn care themselves. Mike proudly boasted that he could still cut the grass because his father rigged a ride on mower to be hand controlled.
After Mike was released from the hospital, his daughters, who hadn't seen him for about six weeks until he was at Kessler, wanted to know how they were going to father-daughter dance at their weddings.
"First of all we don't need to think about marriage," Mike said with a laugh, adding that, he really didn't have any idea what to tell them at the time. "Daddy will figure something out when the time is right."
And that's when modern technology came to the rescue.
On Nov. 8, Mike had the opportunity to demonstrate Ekso Bionics' robotic exoskeleton suit, which gave him the ability to stand and walk, at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare in Wallingford.
He had participated in a prototype of the device at Kessler, and having done the prototype, as well as prerequisites like upper body strength and range of movement and having a history of doing triathlons, Mike was more than happy to be one of five participants in the demonstration.
"Just standing was quite exciting," Mike said, adding that he spent a lot of his time looking down at his feet, and the therapists told him to look up and watch where he was going.
"It didn't matter where I was going as long as I was going," Mike said. "Looking down at my feet and actually seeing them move is a lot more interesting."
He said that the design is being worked on for home-use, and that he thinks it would make life "so much easier." Right now Mike has a stander, which allows him to stand upright and work against muscle atrophy.
"With [the exoskeleton] I can stand up and if I want to go somewhere I can walk to it," Mike said. "I can sit on the couch without transferring; I can go to a restaurant. Just looking at folks eye to eye instead of up all the time and having conversations standing up at a party."
Sue also thought the device was just amazing.
"For me being able to stand up and be eye to eye with me is something that I miss," Sue said. "And to see the joy that it brings to him to be able to see his legs move and be upright and walk again is heartwarming. Just knowing the possibilities ... he could walk our daughters down the aisle with this. He could do some form of a father-daughter dance with them."
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